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Painters Of The Plains
The Middle West has put its stamp on many artists’ work
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
Still, exceptional work does now and then appear—product of the times and the environment, like all the rest, but nevertheless expressing deeply the impact of the environment upon the artist. Ranney, Tait, Russell, Remington and Schreyvogel caught the spirit as well as the factual detail of what they painted. Late in the century the romance of the cowboy-cattle theme captivated the imagination, and new artists appeared, including Frank Tenney Johnson and William R. Leigh.
Meanwhile, in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, another group of painters moved west, drawn not by the cowboys and Indians and hell-roaring mine camp characters but by the sheer dramatic quality of the Western landscape. These painters—Bierstadt, Moran, Hill, Keith and others—were stirred by the vastness, depth, height and remoteness of the Western scene. They caught its changing moods in the same tradition that led other romantic landscape painters—Cole, lnness, Wyant and Durand—to interpret the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains a few years earlier.
The effect of this growing romanticism on Western paintings appeared in the representation of subjects. Discarding the original factual approach, some painters—notably George de Forest Brush—represented the Indian, not as he really was, but according to a predetermined conception. The Indian became the romantic child of nature, idealized to fit a poetic or romantic pattern. Accurate representations of costumes, habits and everyday life became relatively unimportant. The philosophical aspects came first.
Again the situation changed; the Middle West has never been static. After the First World War the landscape and genre aspects of America had little interest for the younger artists. Many of them turned toward Paris and the Continent for study and inspiration. American artistic thought took on an international tinge, and the local scene became secondary. This was especially true in the Middle West—until that widely publicized triumvirate, Curry, Wood and Benton, struck out for the true roots of American life.
They found what they were looking for right at home—in the Main Streets, on the farms, in harvest scenes, at church suppers, and so on, in their native states of Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. Other artists followed their lead. In the Thirties and early Forties, American regionalism flourished. The homely, familiar American farm came into its own on canvas.
But these regionalists were not making reports for surveys or providing illustrations for Eastern magazines, nor were they looking for romance in a by-gone or wholly imaginary era. Like the Nineteenth Century artists, they were realists; but their realism had a strong personal approach. The subject was only their starting point. Color, action and background were composed into a unified personal statement of the scene that was bold and direct, often freely and impressionistically painted—the same Western environment that influenced Bodmer, Stanley, Moran and Russell, subject now to a new age and thought.
The regionalist movement, of course, did not affect all artists. Counter-movements of expressionism and non-objectivity had become well rooted in America during the 1920’s. At mid-century, American artists have turned away from regionalism. The physical environment has become secondary—even non-existent—to a world if inner ideas and personal emotions that is uppermost in modern painting.
Today the influence of environment in the middle part of this country lies not in its appearance but in its vastness, openness, and even—in an age of speedy air travel—in its distance from the east and west coasts. All over this area there are active centers where independent, creative work is going forward. In these separate areas it is possible that freshness, individuality and resourcefulness can be maintained in a period when art is becoming typed and design is becoming highly standardized.
For in the final analysis, the impact of the environment on the artist is largely mental. Increasingly, man ceases to be confined by his physical surroundings. The tremendous Middle West is still greater than the men who live in it and try to interpret it, but it challenges them now in a different way.