Creating the American West title

During the Civil War years of the early 1860s, artistic depictions of magnificent western landscapes contrasted sharply with photographs of battlefield carnage. Paintings like those on display here presented hope for healing in the nation’s pristine wilderness and contributed to conservation movements that would lead to the formation of national parks. American artists, many returned from studies in Europe, went in search of uniquely American subjects. In this quest, some New York City–based artists associated with the Hudson River School—a group devoted to the beautiful and fearsome in nature—turned to western landscapes. In so doing, they presented a vision of the nation that could rival anything produced in Europe, and contributed to the idea that humanity’s relationship to nature profoundly informed American identity.

Captivated by these visions of grandeur and encouraged by such US government policies as the 1862 Homestead Act, many people moved westward for economic opportunity, religious freedom, and personal growth. This migration impacted intercultural relationships, sometimes worsening existing intertribal conflicts. It also created new tensions regarding property rights and cultural displacement as Indigenous people continued to be forced from their ancestral lands onto reservations, and Euro-Americans imposed their language, attire, and religion on them.

Albert Bierstadt (American, born in Germany, 1830–1902)
Wind River Country, ca. 1860
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Charles H. Bayly Collection, 1987.47

During the 1860s and 1870s, German-born Albert Bierstadt was one of the most famous artists in the United States. Bierstadt first went west in 1859 with the Lander Expedition to the Wind River Range in what was then the Nebraska Territory (now Wyoming). Soon after his return to the East, he painted this work, taking pains to record natural details such as the range of native tree species. A grizzly bear consuming a gutted antelope in the foreground is the only allusion to the inherent dangers of Bierstadt’s journey in an otherwise Edenic scene bathed in warm light.

Thomas Moran (American, born in England, 1837–1926)
A Snowy Mountain Range (Path of Souls, Idaho), 1896
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Roath Collection, 2013.109

The Rocky Mountains became indelibly linked to ideas of the West, thanks to artistic depictions like those in this gallery. Thomas Moran’s paintings convey the majesty and mystique of the American West through luminous colors and strong contrasts of light and shadow. From the 1870s onward, his depictions of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone River valley were widely disseminated and are often credited with helping to create our national parks.

Thomas Moran (American, born in England, 1837–1926)
Grand Canyon Lodge, after 1896
Oil on panel
Denver Art Museum: Roath Collection, 2013.108

Albert Bierstadt (American, born in Germany, 1830–1902)
Mountain Lake, 1863
Oil on paper on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Gift of HRH Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, 2012.278

Samuel Colman (American, 1832–1920)
A View of Yosemite, Spiller Canyon and Bridgeport Valley, California, ca. 1888
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2013.6

Albert Bierstadt (American, born in Germany, 1830–1902)
Evening Glow, date unknown
Oil on board
Denver Art Museum: Roath Collection, 2013.140

Thomas Moran (American, born in England, 1837–1926)
Sunset, Green River Butte, 1915
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Roath Collection, 2013.110

John William Casilear (American, 1811–1893)
Near Greeley, Colorado, 1882
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.457

Sanford Robinson Gifford (American, 1823–1880)
Longs Peak, Colorado, 1870
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Gift of Arthur J. Phelan, Jr., 2010.541

Some Hudson River School artists found the plains and deserts of the West just as interesting as its rugged peaks. The three small works here emphasize flat plains stretching away to a wall of mountains. They demonstrate each artist’s attempts to capture the immense scale of the landscape around them, the quality of light filtered through the high altitude of Colorado, and the yellow and purple hues of an arid landscape much different from that of the lush Hudson River Valley in New York.

John Frederick Kensett (American, 1816–1872)
Snowy Range and Foothills from the Valley of Valmont, Colorado, 1870
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Williams, 1975.66

In 1870, John Frederick Kensett accompanied his friends Worthington Whittredge and Sanford Robinson Gifford on a train to Denver, Colorado, where they spent the summer sketching the Colorado Rockies. All three artists were associated with the Hudson River School. The vast expanses of the West, as well as its dry air and brilliant sunshine, contrasted sharply with the rolling green hills and more humid air of the East.

Worthington Whittredge (American, 1820–1910)
Foothills Colorado, 1870
Oil on paper
Denver Art Museum: Partial gift of the Houston Foundation in memory of M. Elliott Houston and funds from various donors, by exchange, 1969.160

In 1866 Worthington Whittredge first traveled west with General John Pope on a government expedition to meet with Indigenous peoples. He traveled nearly two thousand miles on horseback in a period of two months, marveling at the vast expanses of plains and soaring spines of mountains. After returning to his studio in New York City, he produced a number of Colorado-themed paintings, but soon decided that he needed to return to the Rocky Mountains for further study. In 1870, he made his second trip west, this time by train.

Dakota Hoska (Oglála Lakȟóta):

One day, I was bike riding with a friend along a trail that circled Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This lake is one lake in a chain of lakes that runs through Minneapolis. Although this is Dakhóta homeland, Nokomis is an Ojibwe word taken from nookomis, which translates to “grandmother.” Wistfully, I wished aloud that I could see this area of Minneapolis as it had been before all of the houses encircled the lake and runoff had polluted the water. To which my friend replied, “Me too. I would run up and down claiming lots and reselling them, making an [expletive]-full of money!”

I think of this story when I look at this painting, and compare it to my view of the foothills today. The brown smog of industry and traffic unapologetically muffles their jagged view on most days. Assuredly, the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho people called them something other than Flatirons when they lived, traded, and hunted here. Images like this painting served as advertisements for weary easterners yearning to escape foul cities in search of peace or adventure, and Whittredge’s title reinforces the possibility of this place for them. They came west, looked at the open plains in front of these rising rock formations, and dreamed of transformation. Like my friend, they viewed this area through a lens that I, the Indigenous nations from this place, and perhaps Whittredge himself would not have imagined. Wistfully, I again wish I could have seen this place before . . .

Albert Bierstadt (American, born in Germany, 1830–1902)
Estes Park, Long’s Peak, 1877
Oil on canvas
Lent by the Denver Public Library, Western History Department, 35.2008

When visiting the West, Albert Bierstadt would paint outdoor sketches like Mountain Lake, on view nearby. Then, back in his New York studio, he combined these sketches into a single dramatic landscape, like the one you see here. Bierstadt paid close attention to minute details, but he also took artistic license in his large paintings, often doubling the size of a mountain to add spectacle to the work. By emphasizing the theatricality of a scene, he enabled viewers to vicariously participate in the adventures of an artist-explorer.

Charles Partridge Adams (American, 1858–1942)
Sunset in Colorado, ca. 1900
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Museum Exchange with Lemon Saks, 1969.53

Charles Partridge Adams moved to Colorado as a teenager in 1876, and, drawn to its jagged landscapes, stayed for the next forty years. His paintings express a poetic reaction to the Rocky Mountains and convey a sophisticated understanding of the varying effects of light and air. Here, using an alla prima technique—painting wet paint onto wet paint—Adams effectively captures the most intense moment of a saturated Colorado sunset with vibrant orange and yellow light emanating through the clouds.

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