Painting the American West

Charles Marion Russell’s oil on canvas, ‘For Supremacy,’ went for $1.5 million at The Russell — Saturday Night Live Auction by The Russell: C.M. Russell Museum in March 2015. Photo courtesy of C.M. Russell Museum and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — The myth of the American West lingers today in our national consciousness and its echoes are still felt in modern culture.

Artists picked up their brushes in the 19th and 20th centuries, fascinated by the American West and headed to the frontier to paint thousands of works, introducing its wonders to people back on the East Coast or in Europe who could not imagine the fire and brimstone of Yellowstone or the marvelous gaping chasm that is the Grand Canyon. Even as the wild West was disappearing, artists captured scenes of frontier life, painting images of cowboys rounding up cattle and portraits of stoic Indian chiefs. Thanks to these artists, the frontier life is permanently seared into the American consciousness and even today, contemporary artists are continuing this tradition, creating new truths and visions of the American West.

C.M. Russell

One of the best-known painters of the American West — whose artworks routinely achieve six- and seven-figure prices at auction — is Charles Marion Russell. Born in 1864 in St. Louis, Missouri, the artist made more than 2,000 paintings of cowboys, Indians and Western landscapes as well as bronze sculptures.

He was quite taken with the Northern Plains Indians. In the summer of 1888, he observed their culture firsthand when stayed near several tribe camps, an experience that shaped his art and resulted in the exacting detail of his paintings of Plains Indian life.

“Russell created approximately 4,000 works of art during his lifetime. His art is first and foremost that of a storyteller, and it was informed by his remarkable ability to capture in paint, bronze, ink and wax the personalities and events of his time and place. He was the first ‘Western’ artist to live the majority of his life in the West. For this reason, Charlie knew his subject matter intimately, setting the standard for many Western artists to follow,” according to the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, where he lived for many years and died in 1926.

Julian Onderdonk’s (American, 1882-1922) oil on canvas, ‘Texas Landscape with Bluebonnets,’
25 x 30 in., realized $360,000 at Heritage Auctions in November 2015. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Julian Onderdonk

Another beloved figure among Western painters is Julian Onderdonk (1882-1922), best known for his impressionistic landscapes featuring Texas bluebonnets and dubbed the “father of Texas painting.”

After pursuing art studies in New York, he returned to his native Texas in 1909, and for the next 13 years (before his untimely death following surgery), put on canvas the Texas landscape with unparalleled skill and sensitivity. His sister Eleanor, an artist herself, wrote of her brother, “It is impossible to look at any of Julian’s paintings and not see the man who looked at nature with wide-open eyes, analyzed, studied and then created.”

Onderdonk’s bluebonnet paintings were, and still are, much acclaimed and led to a series of Texas Wildflower exhibitions in San Antonio in the late 1920s and inspired the “Bluebonnet School,” which continues today. He returned to this theme again and again but each time creating a different painting, a different mood — stormy and gray or warm and bathed in sunlight.

“Julian Onderdonk is the perfect example of a regional artist who discovered what his clients liked and wanted to purchase. Texas loved their bluebonnets when Onderdonk was alive, and they still love them today,” said Wes Cowan, principal auctioneer and executive chairman, Cowan’s Auctions Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Albert Bierstadt, ‘Indian Camp,’ a circa 1899 oil on paper, brought $95,000 at Dallas Auction Gallery in November 2015. Photo courtesy of Dallas Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Albert Bierstadt

Known for his larger-than-life, sweeping landscapes, German-American painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) excelled at depicting the striking vistas of the West. After a survey expedition looking at wagon routes in Wyoming in 1859, he found his career path that would set him on his course. He observed nature and people, making hundreds of sketches, taking photographs and brought them back to his New York studio to turn into paintings as inspiration. He made several such trips out West to collect inspiration that would feed his art.

“The artist’s rugged, romanticized landscapes of the West, painted on a grand scale with an abundance of detail and dramatic lighting, captured the imagination of 19th-century art collectors and their interest catapulted Bierstadt to the top of the American art market. His paintings brought record prices and in his lifetime, Bierstadt enjoyed tremendous success and recognition,” according to a biography of the artist at www.albertbierstadt.org.

He became famous for his gorgeous and massive Luminist paintings of the American West – that practically glowed with light in keeping with the Hudson River School of Art he was trained in — and he was widely collected by private collectors and museums, at robust prices for the time.

This oil on canvas by Joseph Henry Sharp (American, 1859-1953), ‘Crow Encampment,’ 22 by 26 ½ in., made $260,000 at Cowan’s Auctions Inc. in September 2013. Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Taos School of Artists

Among the Taos School of Artists were founding members Joseph Henry Sharp and E.I. Couse, two painters who are often studied in connection with each other. Not only were they colleagues and neighbors whose studios were separated by only an adobe wall but their artistic background was similar and both brought to New Mexico the influences they received from studying art in Paris.

For a 2009 exhibition, “Kindred Spirits and the Adobe Connection: E.I. Couse and J.H. Sharp,” art historian Marie Wilkins of Furman University gave a talk at the Harwood Museum of Art. In a news article publicizing the exhibition, she said, “The Beaux-Arts tradition never left them. Paris determined how Couse and Sharp painted. In turn, they, along with their Taos colleagues, transformed American art. What they learned in Paris didn’t stay in Paris, but unfolded into a rich and diverse Taos panorama.”

Keeping with academic tradition, both artists carefully prepped their paintings to ensure they were realistic and faithful to their subjects. Taos artists, especially Couse, were known for their reliance on photography, props and observation in making their art.

Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953) is best known for his realistic depictions of American Indians, having spent years living among the Crow Indians in Montana, where he painted some of his most famous Indian encampment scenes. Originally from Ohio, he made his first trek out West in the spring of 1883 and by 1910, he was nearly exclusively painting in Taos.

“(He) devoted close to 80 years of his life to painting Native Americans throughout the western states. In 1901 the Smithsonian Institution acquired 11 of Sharp’s portraits, a watershed moment in the artist’s professional life. Ten years later the curator of anthropology at the Smithsonian wrote to Sharp, ‘I regard you as among the first, if not the very first, painter of Indian portraits in this country. The exactness with which you portray the physiognomy and the costumes of the people is most commendable’ (Fenn, The Beat of the Drum and the Whoop of the Dance, 1983),” according to the Smithsonian’s website.

E. Irving Couse’s ‘The Eagle Dance’ took $230,000 at Santa Fe Art Auction in November 2011. Photo courtesy of Santa Fe Art Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936), aka E.I. Couse, was born in Michigan, where he grew up familiar with the daily customs and rituals of the local Chippewa Indians there. After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago and then the Académie Julian in Paris, where he mastered academic techniques that shaped his art and compositions.

At age 36, he first visited Taos in 1902 on the recommendation of Sharp and fellow artist Ernest L. Blumenschein, both of whom he met in Paris. Within four years, he had set up a home and studio here, painting mostly in the summers and spending winters in New York. He eventually moved full-time to Taos in 1928, where he set about to portray the Pueblo Indians. “Couse’s distinctive style and unique paintings of Indian subjects, often dramatically lit by twilight or set in the shadows of firelight, earned him an international reputation. Commissioned for many years to supply pictures for the yearly calendars of the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Co. calendars, his work was instantly recognizable to many,” according to the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which offers his work.

Thomas Moran’s ‘Castle Rock, Green River, Wyoming,’ 20 by 30 inches, attained $3.6 million at The Russell: C.M. Russell Museum auction in March 2016. Photo courtesy of C.M. Russell Museum and LiveAuctioneers

Thomas Moran

Thomas Moran’s (1837-1926) work was noted for its vivid hues that were put to good use in his dramatic depictions of natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, which are a key part of his oeuvre. Characteristic of his landscapes are steep mountains, rock formations often set against a moody sky.

He traveled repeatedly to national parks, the most game-changing of which was in 1871, when he was a guest artist, along with photographer William Henry Jackson, on a federally-funded survey expedition, led by Ferdinand V. Hayden, that visually documented in 40 days more than 30 sites, including Yellowstone. On this trip, he painted The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and The Chasm of the Colorado, both of which were bought for a staggering $10,000 each by the U.S. Congress to be hung in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

“This unique partnership with Moran and Jackson was critical to Hayden, who included their art in a comprehensive report to Congress. Jackson’s black and white photos documented Yellowstone’s unique geological formations while Moran’s paintings and watercolors captured its diverse and extravagant colors,” according to a blog posted on the website of the National Parks Conservation Association. “These photos and paintings not only won the attention of Congress, they also captured the imagination of the nation. Historians credit these inspiring images with showing the grandeur of the region and persuading Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant to establish Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872.”

Catlin’s ‘North American Indian Portfolio… ‘ went for $200,000 at Arader Galleries in June 2015. Photo courtesy of Arader Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

George Catlin

George Catlin (1796-1872) is renowned for his exhaustive series of ethnographic portraits of 48 specific Native American tribes that resulted in the publishing of North American Indian Portfolio. Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Prairies of America. From Drawings and Notes of the Author, made during Eight Years’ Travel amongst Forty-Eight of the Wildest and Most Remote Tribes of Savages in North America. From his trips in the 1830s, he created over 500 portraits depicting Native Americans in full authentic attire, showing their dress and hairstyles as the frontier and their way of life was diminishing. Catlin’s monumental journey took him more than 2,000 miles between 1830 to 1836.

“These beautiful scenes in Indian life are probably the most truthful ever presented to the public,” wrote Thomas W. Field in an essay on the portfolio. During its tour in Europe, a French critic Charles Baudelaire was quoted as saying “He has brought back alive the proud and free characters of these chiefs, both their nobility and manliness.”

In 1837, Catlin launched the first commercial exhibition of his work and it was popular, but not financially successful, over the long haul for the artist. The market in America became saturated and while exhibitions in Europe were also well-attended, Catlin could not turn a profit. He ended up having to sell his original “Indian Gallery” to satisfy debts and died worrying over the collection’s fate, which ultimately was gifted to the Smithsonian.

Frederic Remington’s ‘John Ermine,’ 1903, pastel over halftone on paper, 22 1/2 by 15 in., achieved $600,000 at Jackson Hole Art Auction in September 2012

Frederic Remington

Best known for his bronzes such as his famous The Broncho Buster (visit related article at https://www.liveauctioneers.com/news/be-smart/cowboy-mystique-lives-remington-bronzes/), Frederic Sackrider Remington (1861-1909) also made paintings and was made his career as an illustrator – producing over 3,000 flat art pieces in all, mostly creating Western and military scenes for some of the leading magazines of the day, such as Harper’s Weekly, Century and Collier’s.

After the exhibition of Remington’s Return of the Blackfoot War Party at the National Academy of Design, the New York Herald proclaimed Remington would “one day be listed among our great American painters” for his distinctive work and complex compositions. His position in the pantheon of American painters was cemented in 1889 when he was awarded a second-class medal at the Paris Exposition. Ironically, the American committee chose him over Albert Bierstadt to represent the country for American painting.

“Frederic Remington was the preeminent historian of the Old West and the frontier, and he realized it well, knowing of both its significance to the rest of America and the way in which it helped shape our national identity.

Remington’s art reflects his lifelong fascination with all aspects of military and frontier life,” according to the Gerald Peters Gallery.

Tips for buyers

“This segment of the art market continues to thrive, fueled by folks who retire or who have second homes in the West,” said Cowan. “Buy what you like without worrying about whether the work will increase in value.

“Keep in mind that there are hundreds of contemporary artists (Howard Terpning and Michael Coleman to name but two) and who paint Western scenes. Before buying, educate yourself to learn about the depth and breadth of what’s available.”

The myth of the American West lives on in these paintings that are as collectible today as when their canvases were still drying. All the majesty, dangers and excitement of the newly accessible American West is there to enchant the beholder.