How the West was won, how it was lost, and how it was romanticized are on display in a new exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
“In this community, there’s a lot of people who love Western art, and a lot of people who love Indian art,” said Gretchen Dietrich, UMFA’s executive director, at a preview of “Go West! Art of the American Frontier from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.”
The touring exhibit, from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyo., features more than 80 works of art from 1830 to 1930, featuring such well-known artists as Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell and Albert Bierstadt — juxtaposed with artful items from Lakota, Crow, Cheyenne and other tribes. It opens Sunday at UMFA, at 410 Campus Center Drive on the University of Utah campus, and runs through March 11.
“Go West!” is the first touring exhibition UMFA has hosted since reopening in August after a 19-month renovation on the Marcia and John Price Building. Dietrich said the exhibit matches well with UMFA’s permanent collection, particularly since the American and regional galleries were moved to the first floor, where the traveling exhibition will be shown.
Naoma Tate, a Wyoming art collector who’s on the boards of UMFA and the Buffalo Bill Center, said she was thrilled that the touring show — which has previously traveled to Omaha, Atlanta and Palm Springs, Calif. — has come to Utah.
“Western art sometimes was not taken seriously as it is now,” Tate said. “It’s part of our culture. It’s part of our life.”
The art on display, said Leslie Anderson, UMFA’s curator of European, American and regional art, “exemplify evolving notions of the American West.”
Starting in the 1830s, East Coast artists were already documenting the dwindling populations of Native Americans. Six grouped paintings by George Catlin (1796-1872) depicted rituals of the Mandan tribe along the Missouri River in what are now the Dakotas.
Anderson said Catlin focused on a common notion among artists visiting the West: Indigenous people slowly being destroyed by encroaching civilization. But Catlin didn’t get too graphic about it. “He also wanted to make money,” Anderson said.
One way to mythologize the West was to show it without any people in it. One gallery of the exhibit is devoted to landscapes, big sweeping vistas by Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and others. A Moran watercolor of Yellowstone is flanked by chromolithographs — color prints — done in the same style, including one of the Great Salt Lake. If humanity was included in such landscapes, it was in the creations of industry, like the railroads. (Moran, for one, took commissions from railroad companies that wanted to boost travel on their trains, Anderson said.)
The decimation of the buffalo was another subject captured through the artists’ nostalgic gaze. Anderson pointed out two paintings, Bierstadt’s 1889 work “The Last of the Buffalo,” and a painting the same year by Remington. Both were displayed in Paris, Anderson said; critics rejected Bierstadt’s realistic depiction but embraced Remington’s work, which emulated the Impressionists who were in vogue in Europe.
Near these paintings in the exhibit is a Shoshone feather bonnet, featuring pieces of carved bison horn — a symbol of protection. In later years, when the Shoshone were sent to reservations, the bonnet took on a new significance, as a sign of resilience, Anderson said.
Perhaps no figure is more romanticized in the exhibition than William F. Cody, ol’ Buffalo Bill himself. Three portraits of the showman are grouped on one wall. One, by French artist Rosa Bonheur, captures Cody as a lone horseman. A larger work shows, and likely exaggerates, Cody’s role in rescuing settlers from “savage” indians. The third, Remington’s “Buffalo Bill in the Limelight” (1899), shows Cody as a showman, leading his Wild West Show and taking the spotlight.
‘Go West!’ at UMFA
The touring exhibition “Go West! Art of the American Frontier from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.”
Where • Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City.
When • Opens Sunday, Dec. 3, and runs through March 11.
Admission • $18.95 for adults; $15.95 for youth (6 to 18) and seniors; free for children (5 and under), UMFA members, University of Utah students, faculty and staff, students at public Utah universities, Utah Horizon/EBT cardholders, and active-duty military families.
Related programs • A series of free public programs, “Now West!,” is being organized in conjunction with the exhibition. Go to umfa.utah.edu for a schedule.