Nostalgia for the Art of the American Frontier
Art of the American Frontier: From the Buffalo Bill Center of the West by Stephanie Mayer Heydt collects nearly 250 full color illustrations of the art of the frontier. Everything from portraits of cowboys from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the art of native tribes, and contemporary art featured in the Buffalo Bill Center, fills the pages. The book includes three provocative and thoughtful essays as well, which highlight a key theme of the collection, nostalgia. Indeed, the concept of nostalgia and the problematic concerns that attend it seem unavoidable in any critical discussion of the history of the west and the production of western art.
The appeal of the west in American culture is intuitive. The cowboy is still to this day one of the clearest American metaphors for manliness, strength, and independence. Art of the American Frontier’s first essay traces a compelling historical case for the development of the cowboy image. Faced with the relative youth of the American cities in contrast to the artistically and culturally well-established European cities, those few artists who braved the western were defined by it and sought to produce an instantly recognizable, idiomatic visual representation for those on the eastern coast. A key part of that idiom, problematically, has always been the depiction of Native Americans. Some of these projects were documentary in nature. Thomas McKenney, aided by the painter Charles Bird King, and George Caitlin created hundreds of portraits of native leaders and tribal life. In the pursuit of idiom, however, more projects played upon stereotypes held by those in the east, depicting the Native American as “the noble savage.” As the settlement and development of the frontier came into conflict with the lands and lives of Native Americans, depictions took a darker turn, showing Native Americans as frontier villains at odds with the American prairie family. The reality, that Native Americans were being forced out of their traditional habitations and penned into reservations, ran contrary to both stereotypes and was often ignored.
By the end of the 19th century the frontier had been irrevocably changed. Yet, far from diminishing interest in the frontier, this change elicited a renewed interest, a concerted effort to recapture the distinctive American idiom. The act of reclamation is a complicated one, however, and, in the history of the west, the object of reclamation was always an idiom, a construction, to begin with. After the close of the frontier, critical assessment of Western art began to include an automatic assessment of historical authenticity. This search often obscured the reality of these paintings. Depictions of Native Americans by white artists were praised for their exoticism, the extent to which they could capture the Native American culture before its encounter with white culture. A clear impossibility, such paintings undermined the immediacy of the Native American plight, the source of the loss that makes the paintings so memorable.
The same can be said of the cowboy. The author Owen Wister exerted more influence over the development of the image of the cowboy than perhaps any other single individual. Reclaiming something that never existed in the first place, Wister described the cowboy as the Western version of the Englishman nobleman. Strong, morally incorruptible, and above all white, the cowboy was the idiomatic American answer to the European aristocrat. Wister conveniently dismissed two historical realities—the original ties of the cowboy to the Mexican vaquero and, even worse, the role of white, eastern culture in destroying the west Wister now sought to memorialize. Perhaps no image manages to sum up this complicated project better than that of the great artist of the west, Charles Schreyvogel, painting a portrait of a cowboy on the rooftop of his Hoboken studio.
The idealization of the west helped ease early American anxiety toward progress and the harms of industrialization. It proposed visual figures of high moral character, models that assuaged the American consumer’s fear that they had been historically complicit in the end of the frontier, models that aesthetically abdicated responsibility by claiming the imaginary moral high ground for white America. While not every depiction of Native Americans or of the fest fell into this trap of nostalgia, many of the most popular images and narratives continue to this day, in ways that often go unnoticed. When I was growing up, I had a reproduction of an untitled cowboy painting on my wall, which showed a few men leaning confidently on a dusty fence while another man, in full cowboy regalia, leapt onto a bronco raised on its hind legs. Ready to ride out and face the unknown dangers of that dusty and mysterious world, this cowboy still has a hold on me. Placed, as I can now situate it, in the full historical narrative of this country, this hold worries me because it tells only part of a very long and complicated story in which that cowboy and I can no longer claim moral innocence. Maybe that is the reason, though, to continue to explore western art, to stop looking at one image in our history and imagining whatever makes us most comfortable, and to begin to address to the reality of the frontier.
Jack O’Malley is a freshman at Yale and a student intern at Yale University Press