1882 oil painting of the Rocky Mountain Front near Greeley

See Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum

Through January 14, 2019

A selection of old favorites and exciting new additions from the Western American Art collection are currently on display in the Hamilton Building. The oldest oil painting in the western American art collection—Charles Bird King’s portrait of Hayne Hadjuhini, the young wife of an Oto chief—was painted in 1822, when many American Indian tribes traveled to Washington, DC to negotiate treaties. In fact, most of the nineteenth-century western paintings now on display were painted on the East Coast.

Studio Paintings

While King had the luxury of welcoming American Indian sitters into his Washington, DC studio, the other artists on display—Albert Bierstadt, John William Casilear, William Jacob Hays, and Alfred Jacob Miller—produced studio paintings after they had journeyed into the American West. Because it was impractical to bring along large canvases and oil paints—remember that most artists traveled by wagon and horseback and, eventually, the railroad—these artists made portable pencil sketches and watercolor paintings along their journeys.

When these artists returned to their East Coast studios, they produced larger oil paintings based on these sketches and their memories. See, for example, Casilear’s 1882 oil painting of the Rocky Mountain Front near Greeley (pictured at top). These large studio paintings, produced from a combination of observed fact and artistic fantasy, appealed to an East Coast clientele curious about the wonders of the nation’s western wilderness.

Modern Artists

During the early twentieth century, artists working in modern styles—think impressionism, post-impressionism, and cubism—made significant contributions to art of the American West. In particular, the landscape and quality of light of the Southwest drew notable modern artists now on display including Marsden Hartley, Andrew Dasburg, Willard Nash, Ernest Blumenschein, Kenneth Miller Adams, and B. J. O. Nordfeldt.

These artists approached their subjects with looser brushstrokes, nontraditional perspective, and expressive color. See, for example, Nash’s Landscape #2 (below) and Adams’ Reapers (Harvest). The Swedish-born artist Birger Sandzen spent over 50 summers of his life painting in Colorado, and his painting A Mountain Symphony (Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado), recently acquired by the Denver Art Museum, demonstrates why he was often referred to as “America’s Van Gogh.”

See these and other western American artworks through January 14, 2019.

Image at top: John William Casilear, Near Greeley, Colorado, 1882. Oil on canvas; 23 3/8 x 46 in. William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.457

Landscape #2 by Willard Nash
Willard Nash, Landscape #2, n.d. Oil on canvas; 18 x 20 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.1187

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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