Discovering the art of the American West

by Kate Brumback

AP

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, is hosting an exhibition about the American West, and how perceptions of the land and its people — both the natives and the settlers — evolved over time. “Go West! Art of the American Frontier from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West,” includes more than 250 paintings, sculptures, photos, firearms and Native American artifacts. The works cover the century from 1830 to 1930, ranging from images of Buffalo Bill and the tribal chief Sitting Bull, to landscape paintings and a sculpture of a bucking bronco rider by Frederic Remington.

The works are on loan from Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a museum and cultural center in Cody, Wyoming.

The earliest artists represented in the show were traveling to a place most Americans of their era would never see. They aimed to give the curious public an idea of what native people and landscapes looked like. But many portrayals created “popular perceptions of the West” that were “different from how the West actually was,” said Stephanie Heydt, curator of American art for the High.

“These paintings aren’t documents as much as they are impressions from artists trying to make sense of this place that was unknown to their audiences,” Heydt said. “It was such a changing place with so much going on.”

The exhibition illustrates conflicting and evolving representations of Native Americans, including romantic ideas of noble savages that would fade into history, menacing enemies defeated by heroic cowboys and later, nostalgic depictions of roving tribes and fierce warriors. But few artists showed Native Americans as they actually were, Heydt said.

One who did was Laton A. Huffman, a photographer who lived in Montana and often went to a reservation to shoot portraits that were straightforward rather than sentimental, Heydt said.

Native American artifacts on display are primarily ornately decorated functional items, like shoes, clothes and bags, as well as an impressive eagle-feather headdress and bear-claw necklace.

The exhibition also features posters, photos and film footage from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West traveling show, which toured 10 countries over three decades, along with photos of Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull. Displayed in a glass case are a rifle used by Oakley and a pair of six-shooter guns owned by Cody. Paintings and Remington’s bronze sculpture of a man riding a bucking horse, titled “The Bronco Buster,” capture the iconic cowboy. Originally a sheep rancher from Kansas, Remington was fascinated by and identified with these rough-and-tumble figures early in his artistic career.

N.C. Wyeth worked on a ranch for several weeks in 1904 and illustrated a published account of his visit with paintings of a cattle roundup. The action-packed, dust-filled scenes of ranchers lassoing steers inspired many later images of the West.

Also included in the exhibition are photographs and paintings of spectacular, and now familiar, landscapes — mountains, canyons, waterfalls, geysers and herds of buffalo.

Getting there: “Go West! Art of the American Frontier from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West” runs till April 13 at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. For more information visit www.high.org.