Gallery view of Backstory: Western Art in Context at History Colorado Center

History Colorado Center Exhibition Gives the Backstory Behind Western American Art

Through Feb. 11, 2018

Some of the Denver Art Museum’s Petrie Institute of Western American Art’s most beloved paintings and sculptures are now on display at History Colorado Center as part of a collaborative exhibition entitled Backstory: Western American Art in Context.

Artworks & Artifacts

This exhibition interweaves artworks from the DAM and artifacts from History Colorado to represent diverse voices of the American West including those of Euro-American artists, Native American men and women, vaqueros, soldiers, entrepreneurs, tourists, and cowboys. Progressing chronologically from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, the artworks are placed in historical context that reveals how and why the American West as a place and idea influenced American art and identity.

In the first section, entitled “Westward Curiosity,” visitors will see some of the DAM’s most important nineteenth-century artworks by artist-explorers such as George Catlin and Alfred Jacob Miller who ventured into an unknown wilderness in search of indigenous people and magnificent landscapes. Visitors also will see a real vaquero saddle and Rio Grande blanket that look nearly identical to the ones in James Walker’s Cowboys Roping a Bear.

Gallery view of Backstory: Western Art in Context at History Colorado Center
Gallery view of Backstory: Western American Art in Context.

Russell, Remington & More

The second section, “The West as the Future” presents landscape paintings by notable late-nineteenth century artists Thomas Moran, Colorado artist Charles Partridge Adams, and Albert Bierstadt (including his monumental Estes Park on loan from the Denver Public Library). These landscapes are surrounded by objects–such as war uniforms and drums, a compass used to plot the streets of Denver, a quilt, and posters used to advertise free homes and recruit soldiers for the Indian Wars–that tell the story of the American Civil War and of westward migration.

Paintings and bronzes by Charles Russell and Frederic Remington place visitors in the Old West in the third section of the exhibition entitled “A Wanderlust Memory.” Objects used by real Colorado cowboys in the late-nineteenth century–including wooly chaps, a branding iron, and a chuckwagon–stand as a testament to a ranching lifestyle that continues into the present day. At the same time, a ration card and photograph of a ration house remind visitors of loss of indigenous lands and the challenges of reservation life.

A chuckwagon and other items on view in Backstory: Western American Art in Context
Gallery view of Backstory: Western American Art in Context

Taos Society of Artists

The fourth section, “The Draw of the Southwest,” focuses on the Taos Society of Artists. In existence from 1915 to 1927, the society included artists such as Ernest Blumenschein, Walter Ufer, and E. Martin Hennings who had received international training and went to Taos of search of a quintessential American art. Their paintings reveal interest in the magnificent landscapes and indigenous and Hispanic cultures of northern New Mexico.

Gallery view of Backstory: Western Art in Context at History Colorado Center
Gallery view of Backstory: Western American Art in Context.

A Modern West

The final section, “A Modern West,” presents a diversity of styles in which artists were working– including fauvism, expressionism, and cubism, among others–and reinforces the extent to which the American West remained a critical destination for artists seeking inspiration and an answer to the question “What is American art?”

An art deco light fixture, art nouveau vase, Rockmount Ranch Wear shirt, and Stetson hats reveal to the degree to which artistic styles and commercialized cowboy culture permeated the home by the middle of the 1900s.

If you miss seeing western American art on level 7 of the DAM’s North Building (which is closed for renovations), take a short jaunt down the street to History Colorado Center to see some of the DAM’s most important works on display, as you’ve never seen them before, in Backstory: Western American Art in Context.

Jennifer R. Henneman is assistant curator in the Petrie Institute of Western American Art. Jennifer has been at the DAM since 2016. She likes to point out that she grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana near where Charles Russell painted In the Enemy’s Country.

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