Western American Art

The Petrie Institute of Western American Art is the national leader in scholarly research and programming in the field of art of the American West. The Petrie Institute is organized to enrich life in the Rocky Mountain region through the study, collection, preservation, and exhibition of art created about the American West, its people, its history, and its landscape.

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Dietler Gallery of Western Art, Level 2, Hamilton Building

Betsy Magness Galleries, Level 7, North Building

The Petrie Institute’s mission is to recognize and promote the significance of the West in the larger picture of American cultural development. Through publications, research, symposia, exhibitions, and acquisitions the Petrie Institute strives to bring the Denver Art Museum to the forefront of internationally respected centers of western American art.

The Collection

The Denver community has long embraced its western roots, and, as the region’s premier visual arts institution, the Denver Art Museum has collected and exhibited western American art for over 50 years. In the early 1950s the first curator of western art was appointed and several masterworks such as Alfred Jacob Miller’s Shoshone Indians at a Mountain Lake were acquired for the museum’s permanent collection.

With remarkable historical paintings such as Miller’s and two key early exhibitions, Building the West (1955) and The Western Frontier (1966), the museum began to position itself as a serious venue for western American artistic expression and culture in the Rocky Mountain region. In the last quarter century the museum has organized and hosted a broad range of western exhibitions.

In 2001, the museum received the gift of a large, important collection of western paintings and bronzes from William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen, which provided the impetus for establishing the institute of western American Art.  

Thanks to a major contribution to the building campaign from Cortlandt Dietler, the western galleries were relocated from the seventh level of the North Building to the second level of the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building in 2006. In 2007, the institute received a new title, the Petrie Institute of Western American Art, following an extraordinary gift from the Thomas A. Petrie family to partially endow the department. After careful deliberation it was decided to expand the galleries for western art. The Petrie Institute retained the striking Dietler Gallery in the Hamilton Building and added over 6,000 square feet of space on the seventh level of the North Building in the Betsy Magness Galleries, nearly doubling the gallery space and allowing the museum to tell the story of the art of the West with even greater resonance. In 2010, the fundraising effort to endow the Petrie Institute was completed.

With those pivotal contributions, the new endowment, handsome new galleries, the expanded collection, and attendant educational, exhibition, and publication programs, the Denver Art Museum now stands shoulder to shoulder with the nation’s most renowned western institutions.

The story of the museum’s western collections is one of impressive growth over the past half century. In the 1950s, with grants from the Boettcher Foundation, the Frederick F. Bonfils Foundation, the Fred E. Gates Fund, and the Lawrence Phipps Foundation, the museum purchased a group of seminal works depicting early years in the West. Among these was an oil by America’s leading nineteenth-century animalier painter, William Jacob Hays, Herd of Buffalo, which provided a compelling testament to the impending extinction of the bison in the 1860s.

Thomas Moran’s watercolor of the Mount of the Holy Cross was given anonymously in the 1980s, complimenting Albert Bierstadt’s large early canvas Wind River Country and providing museum visitors an opportunity to enjoy signature icons of Rocky Mountain scenery by the nation’s two leading masters of western landscape painting.

Thanks to William D. Hewitt in 1981, the museum acquired an extraordinary bronze, The Cheyenne, by Frederic Remington. When Lewis Sharp became director in 1989, he termed this sculpture “the single most important Remington bronze in existence.” Then, through the generosity of Bob and Betsy Magness, the museum added Charles Russell’s stunning tribute to the Indians of the northern plains, In the Enemy’s Country. The museum also acquired Charles Deas’s masterwork, Long Jakes, the painting which had singlehandedly created one of America’s first and most enduring western icons, the mountain man.

In 2001, with the gift of William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen’s encyclopedic collection, the museum’s holdings were substantially broadened. The incredible range of the material gifted is revealed in Charles Bird King’s Eagle of Delight of the 1820s and Taos artist E. Martin Hennings’ Rabbit Hunt painted a century later. Both King’s and Hennings’ canvases embody important aesthetic moments in western art and represent powerful cultural transformations among native peoples. The Harmsen Collection is also strong in interpretations of New Mexican subjects by modernists Victor Higgins, John Marin, Raymond Jonson, and Marsden Hartley. The paintings New Mexico Recollection #6 by Hartley and Pueblo Series, Acoma by Jonson are among the best examples of modernism in the west in the collection. They demonstrate how the American West, with its wide-open spaces, angular mesas, vivid colors, and intense light, appealed to artists of the modernist movement with their preference for using bold colors and patterns, radically simplifying or abstracting shapes, flattening three-dimensional forms, and tilting perspectives.

In 2013 the museum announced a major gift of western American art from Henry Roath. The generous donation effectively doubled the importance of the existing western collections and is one of the most important gifts in the history of the Denver Art Museum. Along with the collection donation, Mr. Roath made a financial gift to help establish an acquisitions fund to transform the future of the department and collection. The Roath Collection comprises over 50 works by masters of the American West including Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington, and Ernest L. Blumenschein with artworks ranging in date from 1877 to 1972. Among the most important sculptures in The Roath Collection are two superior casts of Remington’s The Broncho Buster, first modeled in 1895. These two casts illustrate Remington’s mastery of the lost wax casting technique which allowed the artist to modify each individual cast. W. Herbert Dunton’s Black Bears of about 1933 and Blumenschein’s Landscape with Indian Camp of the 1920s are among the signature paintings in The Roath Collection. One of the best private collections of western art in the country, its strengths lie in the art of the American Southwest and in particular members of the Taos Society of Artists. Mr. Roath’s gift allowed the museum to improve the collection with works of extraordinary quality. In complementing the museum’s existing holdings, The Roath Collection helps the museum illustrate the full spectrum of creative output from the American West and demonstrate the importance of the American West in the development of American art.

The Petrie Institute also holds an impressive collection of contemporary paintings and sculptures, many of which were purchased for the museum by the Contemporary Realism Group, a western American art support group active from 1992 to 2011. Over the course of 20 years, the Contemporary Realism Group added nearly 60 paintings and sculpture to the collection of the Denver Art Museum, filling a void of works by contemporary artists working in the genre of realism. In 2011, the Contemporary Realism Group undertook a change in direction. Rebranded as the DAM Westerners, the group broadened its mission to acquiring works where there are gaps in the western American art collections. The acquisitions made by the DAM Westerners reflect a range of subject matters, artistic styles, and time periods.

Less than 15 years after the department was started in 2001, it is one of the best collections of western art in the country with strong holdings of bronze sculpture, the Taos Society of Artists, and early modernism in the American West.  Through the commitment of generous donors and the keen vision of museum leaders, the Petrie Institute has been able to create a world-class collection.

Signature Programs

The Petrie Institute works closely with the museum’s innovative and nationally acclaimed education department to develop interpretive programming for the works in the western American art galleries. The education department has created new ways for visitors to interact with western American art, such as providing response journals that encourage visitors to record their feelings about works on view, and iPods that allow visitors to experience the West through another art form, music. A discovery library and an educational studio in the galleries furnish further hands-on activities. Visitors can design their own western postcard, try on western duds, and explore western art with the help of videos, picture-filled brochures, and cards with artists’ responses to frequently asked questions.

The education department’s important role in enhancing visitor experience is complemented by the Petrie Institute staff’s own educational contributions, including: interpretive labeling in the galleries; annual scholarly symposia; and the publication of nationally distributed exhibition catalogues and annual editions of Western Passages, which explore unexpected subjects and uncommon points of view as well as the tried and true.

The Petrie Institute offers annual scholarly symposia that relate directly to either the department’s exhibitions or other major topics in western American art.

  • Journeys West, 2014
  • Decades: An Expanded Context for Western American Art, 1900-1940, 2013
  • Lest We Forget California: Artists in the Golden West, 2012
  • A Distant View: European Perspectives on Western American Art, 2011
  • Shaping the West: American Sculptors of the 19th Century, 2010
  • Taos Traditions: Artists in an Enchanted Land, 2009
  • Heart of the West: New Art/New Thinking, 2008
  • Redrawing Boundaries: Perspectives on Western American Art, 2007

Publications

All Petrie Institute publications are available through the Denver Art Museum gift shop. Select exhibition catalogues and all Western Passages are also available through the University of Oklahoma Press.

Major Accolades

  • Westword, 2013 - Best Redefinition of Western Art, Ed Ruscha: On the Road, December 24, 2011–April 22, 2012.
  • True West magazine, 2012—Denver Art Museum voted Number 1 Western Art Museum of 2012.
  • Westword, 2011—Best Wild West Show, Charles Deas and 1840s America, August 21, 2010–November 28, 2010. Organized by the Denver Art Museum.
  • Western History Association Award, 2011—Joan Paterson Kerr Book Award, presented biennially for the best illustrated book on the history of the American West. Charles Deas and 1840s America. Written by Carol Clark and published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Westword, 2010—Best Historic Art Show, Solo Artist, Allen True’s West, October 1, 2009–March 28, 2010. Jointly organized by the Denver Art Museum, Denver Public Library, and Colorado Historical Society.
  • Wrangler Award, 2010—Best Art Book of Western Heritage, The Masterworks of Charles M. Russell: A Retrospective of Paintings and Sculpture. Written by Joan Carpenter Troccoli and published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Wrangler Award, 2009—Best Art Book of Western Heritage, In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenschein. Written by Peter H. Hassrick, and Elizabeth J. Cunningham and published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Current Staff

  • Thomas Brent Smith, Director and Curator
  • Nicole A. Parks, Curatorial Assistant
  • Karen E. Brooks, Department Assistant
  • Molly Medakovich, Master Teacher

Past Staff

  • Joan Carpenter Troccoli, Director 2001-2005, Senior Scholar 2005-2012
  • Peter H. Hassrick, Director Emeritus, Director 2005-2009
  • Ann Scarlett Daley, Associate Curator, 2001–2008

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