Painters Of The Plains

It is a big country, sprawling all the way from the Alleghenies to the Rockies, and it puts its mark on the people who live in it. Its climate tends to be uncompromising— baking heat in the summer, hostile cold in the winter—and it has never done anything by halves. Where it had forests, they rolled for hundreds of miles, great stands of hardwood, green twilight under their branches; its open prairies were like the sea itself, rolling west in an unbroken treeless groundswell.When white men came to break this wilderness for settlement it smote them with Indian warriors, plagued them with malaria, put its enormous rivers in periodic destructive floods; then, as they persevered, it enriched them beyond their hopes, with wealth from its forests and its minerals and its fertile soil.

So the American Middle West has from the beginning been a strong rich area, a land of wonder and terror that has come to seem commonplace only because so many men have lived there so long. And from the beginning it has been a challenge to the artist, putting its own stamp on his attempt to record the look and the sweep and the feel of it.

First, the Indian: a man who had intelligently adapted himself to his physical world, making a balanced use of all of its gifts. The Indian never had any particular wish to conquer nature; he wanted simply to exist in it. He understood how to work out a natural interplay between himself and the forces of his physical environment, and as a result he created a well-integrated culture.

The Indian’s ways of self expression—both his artistic achievements and his religious practices—were completely tied in with his everyday life and with his wish to make himself comfortable and in harmony with his physical surroundings. He wanted to express himself well in all things: in the making and decorating of his dwelling, his clothing, his food, his vessels and his weapons, and most especially in the articles which he made for ceremonial use.

So he produced a highly decorative art which was symbolic, mystic and religious—for it was closely connected with prayer. The deeply significant symbols and painted and quilled designs of the early Plains Indians, for instance, were made with vast care. They were not only expressions of the artistic impulse; if properly done they were talismans that would produce abundant buffalo herds.

The first white artists who undertook to depict the Middle West came with the exploring parties and government expeditions in the second quarter of the Nineteenth Century. Unlike the native artists, these men recorded just what they saw, as they saw it; for their job was to make authentic reports on the infinitely varied aspects of this great new country. The men who had sent them out wanted to know what the land looked like, how its plants grew and its animals behaved, how its rivers ran and where its mountains rolled.

For the East wanted to know all it could learn about the great West. Artists who did not sign onto expeditions free-lanced on their own, going as far west as they could, often joining with traders and trappers. Many of these artists came from Europe, with a background of strict academic training in England, Germany, Austria or France. They painted in the warmth of Nineteen Century romanticism, but their job was primarily that of reporters.

Yet they were basically artists after all; and some of them added that strength of individuality and character that is the substance of art, producing work that has found a rich place in the story of Nineteenth Century painting.

So while Karl Bodmer, for instance, was recording life along the wide Missouri in 1833, many of his pictures carried a quality that lifted them above strict illustration—and Bodmer the artist emerges. His work is factual, but it has a sympathetic feel of the country. Bodmer was responding to the influences of his environment.

Others did the same, finding a strong response to their creative compulsions. Examples are numerous: Alfred Jacob Miller, in his paintings of Rocky Mountain scenery and Indians of the Plains; John Mix Stanley, in his landscapes and studies of Indian life on the early railroad surveys; George Catlin, the true artistic value of whose great record of the Western Indian has only recently been fully recognized; and Captain Seth Eastman, in valuable records made during his early service on the Upper Mississippi.

Then the situation changed. In the later 1800’s much of the Middle West was fully peopled. Yet the farther frontier country still beckoned—its gold, its cattle, its pioneering railway lines, its Indian wars, and its wild romantic vastness—and a glamour attached itself to it all and beckoned to the painters and recorders. Eastern magazines such as Harper’s and Leslie’s sent their illustrators west, and their illustrations bear the mark of men who felt that they were called on to report a strange and exciting country. As historical records, these pictures are rich and abundant, although as works of art they often leave much to be desired.