Briefly: The Art of the American West Collection

Joslyn Art Museum is noted for its comprehensive holdings of works by the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, whose watercolors and prints document his 1832-34 journey through the Missouri River frontier with the German naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied, and a major group of watercolors and paintings by Alfred Jacob Miller based on his travels in the Rocky Mountains with Sir William Drummond Stewart in 1837. Joslyn's Western American installations also include paintings and sculpture by George Catlin, George Caleb Bingham, Seth Eastman, Carl Wimar, Charles M. Russell, Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington, and William Robinson Leigh.

Below are highlights selected from Joslyn's Art of the American West collection.
Art of the American West
Alfred Bierstadt (American, born Germany, 1830-1902),
Dawn at Donner Lake , ca. 1871-1873,
oil on paper mounted on canvas, 21 1/4 x 29 in.; 53.98 x 73.66 cm
Gift of Mrs. C.N. Dietz, 1934.13

Dawn at Donner Lake dates from Bierstadt's third trip west, when he painted mainly in northern California in the Sierra Nevadas from the summer of 1871 to the fall of 1873. In this work, rocky outcroppings dominate the foreground, with the lake seen in the distance through a veil of morning haze. The discontinuous space from the fore- to background is a further indicatio of the influence of stereoscopic photography on Bierstadt's compositions.

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Albert Bierstadt (American, born Germany, 1830–1902),
The Trappers, Lake Tahoe , n.d.,
oil on canvas, 19 ½ x 27 ¾ in.; 49.53 x 70.49 cm
Gift of Mrs. Harold Gifford, 1961.430

Bierstadt is better known for his grand landscapes, but he also painted many scenes of Indian and frontier life. Here Bierstadt is taking advantage of the public fascination with the romantic adventure of the short-lived fur trade era. Two shadowy figures launch a small vessel into the unknown perils of a vast lake under an incredible, sun-reddened sky.

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Albert Bierstadt (American, born Germany, 1830–1902),
Valley of the Yosemite , ca. 1864,
oil on paper on canvas, 14 x 19 in.; 35.56 x 48.26 cm
Gift of Mrs. C.N. Dietz, 1934.14

If there is a single painter whose name is instantly associated with grand Western landscapes, it is Bierstadt. The artist made his first trip West in 1858, and traveled there again in subsequent decades. Reflecting his training at the famed Düsseldorf academy, Bierstadt’s carefully composed romantic paintings are full of details that are faithful to nature but do not necessarily document a particular place. It is the title and not the specific landscape elements that locate this peaceful but impressive scene in the Valley of the Yosemite.

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Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809–1893),
Assiniboin Camp , 1833,
watercolor on paper, 5/8 x 10 3/8 in.; 19.37 x 26.35 cm
Gift of Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.379

This Assiniboin camp was observed by Bodmer in 1833 in western North Dakota. Bodmer’s scientist-patron, Prince Maximilian, described the tipi in the foreground as the dwelling of a chief. Bodmer’s work is acclaimed as the finest visual record of the upper Missouri River frontier.

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Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809-1893),
Landscape with Herd of Buffalo , 1833,
watercolor on paper, 9 5/8 x 12 2/3 in.; 24.45 x 31.43 cm
gift of Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.213

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Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809-1893),
Leader of the Mandan Buffalo Bull Society , 1834,
watercolor on paper, 16 15/16 x 11 5/8 in.; 43.02 x 29.53 cm
gift of Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.264

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Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809–1893),
Mandan Buffalo Robe , n.d.,
watercolro on paper, 12 x 16 ¾ in.; 30.48 x 42.55 cm
Gift of Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.309

This watercolor is a copy by Bodmer of a robe painted by the Mandan chief Mató-Tópe. The exploits pictured include Mató-Tópe’s fight with a Cheyenne chief, shown at the lower left. (Also in the collection is a watercolor of the same incident by Mató-Tópe  himself.) The accuracy and detail of Bodmer’s images are phenomenal; here he has faithfully duplicated the Mandan’s style.

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Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809-1893),
Mató-Tópe (Four Bears), Mandan Chief , 1834,
watercolor on paper, 13¾ x 11¼ inches, 41.9 x 29.53 cm
Gift of Enron Art Foundation,, 1986.49.383

At Fort Clark, North Dakota, during the winter of 1833–34, Bodmer painted Mató-Tópe. A highly respected military and religious leader among the Mandan, Mató-Tópe, or Four Bears, had also befriended the artist George Catlin during his 1832 sojourn at Fort Clark. Maximilian described him as an extraordinary individual, and Catlin later remarked that he was “undoubtedly the first and most popular man of the nation. Free, generous, elegant, and gentlemanly in his deportment — handsome, brave, and valiant; wearing a robe on his back with the history of all his battles painted on it, which would fill a book of themselves if they were properly enlarged and translated.”

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Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809-1893),
Mehkskéhme- Sukáhs, Piegan Blackfeet Chief , 1833,
watercolor on paper, 12 1/2 x 10 1/8 in.; 31.75 x 25.72 cm
gift of Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.284

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Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809-1893),
Mih-Tutta-Hang-Kusch, Mandan Village , 1834,
watercolor on paper, 11¼ x 16 5/8 inches, 28.58 x 42.23 cm
Gift of Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.382

Maximilian and Bodmer spent the winter of 1833–34 at Fort Clark, an American Fur Company post on the upper Missouri River. During this period there was a constant coming and going of people between the fort and the neighboring Mandan settlements. Bodmer’s view of the frozen landscape, made in February 1834, depicts such a scene, with Fort Clark and the Mandan summer village of Mih-Tutta-Hang-Kusch just discernible on the bluff across the river.

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Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809–1893),
Piegan Blackfeet Man , 1833,
watercolor on paper, 2 3/8 x 10 in.; 31.43 x 25.4 cm
Gift of Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.290

Plains warriors frequently painted their shirts or robes with symbols of their war exploits. The figures on the elk hide worn by this man suggest that he was very successful in battles and horse raids: blood flows freely from the wounds of many adversaries, and dozens of horseshoes represent animals stolen. These important accomplishments were a principal standard of success for Plains men, and a major prerequisite for achieving leadership in the community.

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Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809-1893),
White Castles on the Missouri , 1833,
watercolor on paper, 9 x 16 3/8 in.; 22.86 x 41.59 cm
gift of Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.176

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Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809–1893),
View on the Missouri, Blackbird’s Grave , n.d.,
watercolor, 7 5/8 x 11 ¼ in.; 19.37 x 28.58 cm
Gift of Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.373

This watercolor view shows Blackbird’s grave in the far distance, a tiny conical mound on the hill in the center of the picture. Blackbird (ca. 1750–1800) was a powerful Omaha chief, reputed to have poisoned his rivals with arsenic obtained from French traders. He died of smallpox and was said to have been buried, sitting upright on his horse or mule, on this hill near his village.

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William de la Montagne Cary (American, 1840–1922),
Jim Bridger with Sir William Drummond Stewart , 1872,
oil on canvas , 14 ¼ x 18 ¼ in.; 36.20 x 46.36 cm
Museum purchase with funds provided in part by Michael and Gail Yanney in honor of Dr. James O. Armi, 1999.46

Cary, a New York painter, ventured West in 1861, 1867 and 1874. He painted portraits of Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody from life and published many magazine illustrations based on his frontier travels. 

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George Catlin (American, 1796–1872),
A Prairie Picnic Disturbed by a Rushing Herd of Buffalo
, 1854,

oil on canvas, 18 ¾ x 26 ½ in.; 47.63 x 67.31 cm
Gift of Mr. Carman H. Messmore, 1966.624

This scene is from Catlin's book Letters and Notes of 1841. Catlin depicts himself in a hunter’s cap with his two assistants stopping for a picnic during their journey down the Missouri River. The meal is dramatically interrupted by a buffalo stampede that is headed straight for Catlin.

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George Catlin (American, 1796–1872),
Mandan Chief: Ma-To-Toh-Pah (Four Bears) , 1851,
watercolor on board, 16 x 20 ¾ in.; 40.64 x 52.71 cm
Gift of W.F. Davidson, 1966.623

Catlin made several trips West between 1830 and 1836, visiting tribes from the Comanche of the Southwest to the Mandan of North Dakota. By 1837 he had produced approximately 470 paintings. Many of these images he duplicated later for interested patrons. 

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Eanger Irving Course (American, 1866-1936),
Hunter in the Aspens (On the War Path) , 1907,
oil on canvas, 24 x 29 in.; 60.96 x 73.66 cm
Gift of Mrs. C.N. Dietz, 1934.22

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Edward S. Curtis (American, 1868-1952),
Canon de Chelly—Navaho, (Plate 28), Portfolio 1, Apache, Jicarillas, Navaho, from The North American Indian , 1904,
sepia photogravure, 8 x 22 in.; 45.72 x 55.88 cm
Given by Mrs. Esther Johnsen on behalf of the Johnsen family in memory of her husband Johnny A. John, 1990.9.B.28

It took Curtis over thirty years to complete his monumental essay in photo-anthropology, The North American Indian. Published in twenty volumes accompanied by twenty portfolios of magnificent photogravure prints, the study touched on virtually every major Western tribe.  

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Edward S. Curtis (American, 1868–1952),
Little Hawk (Plate 89), Portfolio 3, Teton Sioux, Yanktonai, Assinaboin (sic), from The North American Indian , 1908,
sepia photogravure, 22 x 18 in.; 55.88 x 45.72 cm
Gift of Esther Johnsen on behalf of the Johnsen family in memory of her husband, Johnny A. Johnsen, 1990.11.B.14

Curtis took over forty thousand photographs of Indian subjects, from house types to ritual dances. He was particularly adept at portraits. Here he uses the effects of light and shadow, sharp and blurred focus, and an upward-looking angle of view to convey great nobility and strength of character. The picture seems very personal, although Curtis captioned it by saying, “This portrait exhibits the typical Brulé [Lakota Sioux] physiognomy.” Portrait and caption together reflect the artistic and anthropological goals of Curtis’ Native American project.

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Thomas Hill (American, 1829–1908),
Sierra Nevadas , 1879,
oil on canvas, 18 x 30 in.; 45.72 x 76.2 cm
Gift of E. A. Kingman, 1956.333

The premier landscape artist in nineteenth-century California, Hill did not move permanently to his adopted state until he was in his forties. For three decades thereafter he painted majestic vistas of the Sierras and the Pacific coast. He maintained a cabin in the mountains and traveled widely, directly experiencing the scenic grandeur he depicted, although — like Bierstadt, Moran, and other Western artists of the period — it was more likely Hill’s intent to interpret nature, not to replicate it.

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Frank Tenney Johnson (American, 1874–1939),
Night in Old Wyoming , 1935,
oil on board, 17 ½ x 13 ½ in.; 44.45 x 34.29 cm
Given in memory of Dr. and Mrs. Arthur C. Langmuir and Mr. and Mrs. J.W.B. Van de Water by their fam, 1964.762

Johnson was personally familiar with the world of the cowboy, but he also didn’t hesitate to construct scenes from his imagination. He once said, somewhat paradoxically, that “It has been my ambitious desire to record…with fidelity those events and picturesque phases of life which have given us our romantic western background.” 

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William Robinson Leigh (American, 1866–1955),
A Double Crosser , 1946,
oil on canvas, 8 1/8 x 22 in.; 71.44 x 55.88 cm
Museum purchase, 1955.164

Speaking of an 1897 trip to North Dakota, Leigh exclaimed: “I…had my first taste of the West, and was really inspired by it.” By 1906 the artist had decided to devote all his energies to Western scenes. Leigh was a highly trained painter and a skilled draftsman who produced scores of nostalgic images of cowboys and Indians throughout his long career. If his sun-drenched subjects are sometimes too charming, or even approach caricature, like this 1946 image, they are always presented with sympathetic warmth.

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William Robinson Leigh (American, 1866–1955),
Gathering Water , 1914,
oil on canvas board,
Gift of Norman W. Waitt, Jr.,, 2010.1

With transportation provided by the Santa Fe Railroad in exchange for commissioned paintings, Leigh made periodic trips west beginning in 1906 to search for new subject matter. Among his favorite western subjects were the Hopi Indians of northeastern Arizona. In this oil sketch, Leigh depicts a Hopi maiden collecting water from a rock cistern, likely at Walpi, the ancient village on First Mesa.

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Alfred Jacob Miller (American, 1810–1874),
Portrait of Captain Joseph Reddeford Walker , n.d.,
oil on canvas, 24 x 20 in.; 60.96 x 50.8 cm
Museum purchase, 1963.610

The accomplishments of Joseph Walker (1798–1876) rank with those of Kit Carson and Jim Bridger, although Walker is not nearly as famous. He surveyed the Santa Fe Trail, he was the first white man to see Yosemite, and he led the first wagon train into California. Miller’s portrait shows Walker clad in frontier clothes but carrying a pocket watch. Walker’s handsome features are finely drawn, and his clear blue eyes gaze directly and confidently at the viewer.

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Alfred Jacob Miller (American, 1810–1874),
The Surround , n.d.,
oil on canvas, 66 x 94 ½ in.; 167.64 x 240.03 cm
Museum purchase, 1963.611

In 1837 William Drummond Stewart (Scottish, 1795–1871) asked Miller to accompany him to the Rocky Mountains and record their adventures at the annual fur trading fair known as the rendezvous. Miller made his pictures in the field with pencil, ink, and watercolors. In his Baltimore studio, he translated many of these into oil paintings for Stewart and, later, for other patrons fascinated by the West.

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Alfred Jacob Miller (American, 1810–1874),
The Trapper’s Bride , 1850,
oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches, 76.2 x 63.5 cm
Museum purchase, 1963.612

Baltimore artist Alfred Jacob Miller was working in New Orleans, when he was hired by William Drummond Stewart in 1837 to traveled with an expedition to the Rocky Mountains and the annual gathering of the fur trade. Miller spent six months in the West, and his experiences supplied the raw material for his art for the rest of his career. Miller painted nine versions of this scene. While historians might view the depicted union as an alliance — and Miller may imply that in the tenderly clasped hands — a contemporary American Indian might see inevitable personal and cultural diminishment in this exchange.

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Thomas Moran (American, 1837-1926),
The Mountain of the Holy Cross , ca. 1876,
chromolithograph, 13 5/8 x 9 5/8 in.; 34.61.24.45 cm
Gift of Gail and Michael Yanney and Lisa and Bill Roskens, 2001.40.10

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Thomas Moran (American, 1837-1926),
Yellowstone Lake , ca. 1876,
chromolithograph, 11 1/2 x 16 3/16 in.; 29.21 x 41.12 cm
Gift of Gail and Michael Yanney and Lisa and Bill Roskens, 2001.40.5

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William Tylee Ranney (American, 1813–1857),
Halt on the Prairie , ca. 1850,
oil on paper on board, 8 ½ x 14 ½ in.; 21.59 x 36.83 cm
Bequest of Mrs. John F. Merriam,

Ranney's images quietly celebrate the frontier spirit, with little of the sentimentality that characterized many other popular portrayals of the time. Halt on the Prairie appears to be a sketch or study for a larger work (either never completed or now lost). Perhaps Ranney was inspired by published accounts of Oregon Trail migrants — estimated as high as 5,000 settlers in 1847 alone.
 
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Frederic Sackrider Remington (American, 1861–1909),
Bronco Buster , 1895,
bronze, height: 24½, 62.23 cm
Bequest of N.P. Dodge, 1954.303

Remington’s name is associated with the “Old West” more than that of any other artist. Although he did make several Western visits (including an unsuccessful ranching venture in 1883), Remington lived most of his life in New York, producing nearly 3,000 paintings, drawings, and sculptures, mostly of Western subjects. A highly successful illustrator, his images appeared in forty-one different periodicals and 142 books. Bronco Buster was Remington’s first sculpture. Bronze was a new medium for him in 1895, making the phenomenal balance and action of the piece seem even more amazing.

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Frederic Sackrider Remington (American, 1861–1909),
Canadian Northwest Mounted Police , n.d.,
tempera on wood, 18 ¼ x 8 5/8 in.; 46.36 x 21.91 cm
Gift of Mrs. C.N. Dietz, 1934.63

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Charles Marion Russell (American, 1864–1926),
A Serious Predicament , 1908,
oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in.; 50.8 x 76.2 cm
Gift of Foxley & Co, 2000.27

Charlie Russell worked as a cowboy in his youth and lived in Montana most of his life. He took pride in the accuracy of his ranch scenes, which are typically full of action and adventure. Russell’s titles usually reveal the stories that his images are intended to tell. The alternate title for this painting, Range Mother, further spells out the “serious predicament” in which the charging cow has placed the anxious cowboys.

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Charles Marion Russell (American, 1864–1926),
Buffalo Hunt , 1902,
watercolor on paper, 21 x 14 in.; 53.34 x 35.56 cm
Gift of Barbara J. Birmingham, 2009.56

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Worthington Whittredge (American, 1820–1910),
Long’s Peak, Colorado , 1866,
oil on paper on canvas, 8 ¼ x 21 ½ in.; 20.96 x 54.61 cm
Museum purchase, 1965.58

Whittredge was one of the later Hudson River School landscape artists, whom he defined as painters of “more homely [than grandiose] scenery.” Whittredge made his field sketches, like Long’s Peak, on the spot, often on sheets of paper torn in half to give them the same horizontality as the plains.

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Carl Ferdinand Wimar (American, born Germany, 1828–1862),
Indians Stealing Horses , 1854,
oil on canvas, 6 1/8 x 20 in.; 40.96 x 50.8 cm
Museum purchase, 1951.80

Most of Wimar’s career was devoted to the depiction of American Indians. Based in St. Louis, he traveled up the Missouri River in the 1850s, when the region was still a frontier. In his paintings the artist combined elements of his personal observation of Indian and frontier life with popular ideas about those subjects, and then filtered them through the conventions of his German academic training — they are both fact and fiction.

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N. C. Wyeth (American, 1882–1945),
Untitled (model for ad for Fisk Cord Tires) , 1919,
oil on canvas on panel, 32 x 71 ½ in.; 81.28 x 181.61 cm
Museum purchase with funds from Collectors’ Choice VI, 1995, and the Major Art Purchase Fund, 1995.2

This Wyeth painting, a model for a 1919 advertisement for Fisk Cord Tires, makes comic visual reference to the common notion that Indians, no matter how noble or quaint, were doomed to be left in the dust of modern technology.

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Thomas Moran (American (born England), 1837-1926),
The Grand Canyon of the Colorado , 1913,
oil on canvas, 25 x 30 in.; 63.5 x 76.2 cm
Gift of Mrs. C. N. Dietz, 1934.10

Moran, perhaps more than any other painter of his time, was responsible for making Americans aware of their great natural heritage. The enthusiastic response to his pictures of the West, particularly of the Yellowstone and Grand Teton region, were influential in Congress's decision to establish the National Park System in 1872. Moran accompanied an 1871 government expedition to the Yellowstone, and his superb watercolors of its spectacular geological formations helped persuade Congress to establish the area as the first national park in 1872.

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