Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on December 10, 2007 in Resource Library with permission of Lonnie Pierson Dunbier. The article is an excerpt from Dr. Roger Dunbier's unpublished writing of 601 pages titled WEST IS WEST: Your Money's Worth in Original Painting.  Dated 1982, the original typewriter manuscript is owned by his wife, Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, who edits and submits the chapters to TFAO. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Lonnie Pierson Dunbier in Scottsdale, AZ, at ldunbier@mac.com.



 

FIVE THEMES OF WESTERN ART: A Famous Pioneering Artist for Each of Those Themes 

By Roger Dunbier, PhD (1934-1998)

 

GOD'S COUNTRY: One of the five most enduring themes both in the Westward expansion and in our own time, is the image of the West as a place where new communities could be established away from the sins and errors of the past.  The idea was deeply rooted in the earliest permanent settlements in what later became the United States.  For example, the Pilgrim and Puritan colonies of Massachusetts were strongly shaped by immigrants who wished to create the dream of a new commonwealth.  As we know, these first morally redeemed plantations north of Cape Cod were in rapid order shaken by the exodus of colonists, the likes of Roger Williams who withdrew to the trans-frontier wilderness hoping to establish even more purified and godly communities.  These were in turn recreated; the most famous and enduring being the mid-nineteenth century resettlement of the Mormons in the Great Basin.

Contrasting somewhat but generally hand in had with this search fro redemption on the frontier was, and still is, the concept of progress and its inextricable attachment to Westward expansion.  Anyone who has ever spent an hour reading the speeches of nineteenth-century politicians cajoling audiences with their ideas of 'manifest destiny' cannot gainsay this association.  

Progress was westward!  It was divinely ordained!  The frontier was the cutting edge of a new order, wherein hardworking innovating men would put down fresh roots.

In doing this, however, the old would have to be torn up, but this too was interpreted as progress.  Movement signified improvement.  The trail-clearing true 'pioneers' were repeatedly metamorphosed into various succeeding 'pioneer' species until even stock market operatives like  James J. Hill (1838-1916) and Edward Harriman (1848-1909) could assume the mantel of railroad 'pioneers'.

However, there was a third part to this thesis.  The redeeming frontier and the progress ethic held no part for the native population.  The myth had it that the pioneers entered an empty wilderness.  Or if not quite empty, it was inhabited by Indians, wolves and buffalo, not necessarily in that order.  In this first myth of the West, there was no place for the Native American and certainly not for the Mexican, an obstacle and antagonist.

These combined threads were from the time of the Louisiana Purchase woven into one of the basic canvases, a surface upon which many painters tried their hand.

George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) as much as any other nineteenth century transmitted this 'empty wilderness' image.  

His symbols were in the main those of democracy, faith and progress.  When he dealt with frontier life as he did repeatedly, his pictures showed civilization on the march.  Sometimes stalwart, often tranquil, occasionally joyous pioneer, his figures give the appearance of having come to stay.  Indians, when they appear at all, are pictured as treacherous and inscrutable.

He had minimal truck with them on canvas as he undoubtedly did in life.  His consuming interest was the common man.  The politician, the fiddler, the marksman, the tippler---all took their place on his stage along the banks of Missouri at a time when that stream was both the conveyor and jumping off point to the Great West.

MAN'S COUNTRY: This second image needs less articulation than it does circumscription.  The West as the locale where one could escape into nature has in recent years moved to the fore, displacing in its primacy the more genteel and nostalgic first vision of God's Country.  A fascination with the 'wild' and the 'wide open' used in both their Western American senses has been with us from the start.  It stands in stark contrast with the frontier as redemption; hearth and home.  

It is the image of man alone rather than man in society or of God pervasive in 'his' land.  It is the portrayal of the Mountain Man who more than any single image characterizes this fascination.  Here is the unmistakably genuine liberated man.

The knowledge of his existence, much of it in illustration, contributed to the movement West of another generation of 'loners', the Cowboys.  This image did not exclude hard work; it very much included it, but it was man for himself alone struggling in an environment, which would continue to be in the main to be hostile.  

And unlike the first image, this loner image of man in the West included the Indian.  He was on the periphery, a danger, a curiosity, and not usually a leading player, but very much a member of the cast.

As George Caleb Bingham brought together many of the elements in the first image, God's Country, Charles M. Russell (1865-1926) of Montana could be safely said to have come very close to bringing together all of the second images of 'Man's Country'.  Identification was the word for it.  To see it in one of Charlie Russell's pictures was wanting to be there.  To bust a bronc and ride with the 'wild horse hunters', take dead aim on a buffalo, even rope a wolf---what boy wouldn't cut every last class for that?  Life in the wild with one or two chums, lying under the stars listening to the coyotes, seeing the Indian on the bluff signaling with his blanket . . .

Once you have seen the West through the eyes of Charlie Russell, it is difficult to put aside that vision of freedom just beyond the edge of civilization.  

And, oh yes, he expended more than a little effort on parlaying in paint his idea of what town life was or should be in the Montana of the 1890s.  Looking at some of his paintings, you can only say to yourself, "so what's the matter with riding your horse through the saloon?  The building looks like it won't stand past the next chinook anyhow.  And the bunch playing faro inside is worse than animals any way you look at it.  Powder River let'er buck!  Life's even more fun than back in camp."

EPIC STRUGGLES: Strife and bloodshed on the Western frontier is nothing foreign to those of us who spent our Saturday afternoons at the movies.  In my youth, fifteen cents would get you a heaping dish of this staple Western image.  It makes little difference that professional historians have demolished a great deal of what those matinees 'taught' us about an almost constant roar of gun-fire in the dusty streets and gulches of a celluloid West.  The legend lives and is embellished in every generation:  The Cheyenne versus the wagon train, cowboy versus the wire stringer, cavalry versus Comanche, cattlemen versus sheepmen, drifter versus lawman, and the mob versus the sheriff standing alone.  If you take these images out of 'our' West, the amputation could prove fatal to the legend, if not the reality.

In a most famous painting, A Dash for the Timber, Frederic Remington (1861-1909) portrays eight horsemen at full gallop firing over their shoulders at a band of mounted Indians in hot pursuit and returning their fire.  The white man is the hunted.  Grim looks cover each leathery face.  Every horse's hoof is in the air.  The one riderless horse is flying.  Dust shoots up from the earth and smoke from the guns.  As in many of his remarkable battle scenes, Remington does not allow s to see the direct confrontation between opposing forces.  Here he focuses on the party in flight so that we can concentrate on the retreating defense.  We are indeed among the defenders eight or nine horse lengths in front.  We cannot see all the charging hostiles, and for this reason do not even know how badly we're outnumbered.  The supposition must be 'badly' because anything under about tent to one would be 'even up' to the tough hombres on our side.  Rescue, perhaps victory, is possible, but it is left to our imagination. . . .

Also left to the imagination were the causes, the 'why of this running battle, or should it be said to ours, the 'viewer's' imagination, because this question would never have troubled Remington.  To him violence was a natural, an endemic part of the Old West.  

As this violence faded, so seemingly did Remington's interest in portraying a more civilized contemporary scene.  Cowboys mending fences interested him little.  He never painted a farmer as hero.  He never went West after 1889.  The last twenty years of his life were spent mainly in the East where he turned out hundreds of magnificently created reminiscences of a violent West, all but faded in the memory of aging Bravos. 

THE GREAT OUT OF DOORS:  Here listed fourth, but in point of time and in several regards first, is the portrayal of the wide open spaces without the presence of man.  This image of solitude, either absolute or barely disturbed, contrasts with all the preceding western themes, but most particularly with 'epic struggles', the blood spattered last topic.

Most American landscape painters and their lesser cousins, view painting and topographic sketching as not by any means indigenous to the West.  However, many of those artists engaged in these activities have risen to both figurative as well as literal heights in following these vocations West of the Great Plains.  The land seemed to cry out: "bring me painters to match my mountains".  The very name, Shining Mountains, attached to the Rockies in the early days, begged for painters who could fill large canvases with luminous color.  At the same time, so much of the West remained unknown that the rough outline, indeed the details of land form, vegetation and animal life, found a ready audience.  

There was in fact, and for that matter still is in the West much more nature than there are top-rank landscape painters to do it justice.  One who did was Thomas Moran (1837-1926).

Oh, the critics didn't like him when he was young and brash, and they didn't like him when he was old and out of fashion.  Sometimes their objections surprised even him.  After seeing Moran's painting, The Chasm of the Colorado, a reviewer for Scribner's Monthly, July 1874, wrote of shuttering at "an oppressive wildness that weights down the senses.  You perceive that this terror has invaded the sky.  Even the clouds do not float; they smite the iron peaks below with thunderous hand; they tear themselves over the sharp edges of the heaven-defying summits, and so pour out their burdens in showers of down flying javelins.  In spite of the showers, the sensitive spectators will be dismayed.  This seems to be a glimpse of another planet." (p. 373)  

And with these words, the New York critic put down what may be the greatest of all American paintings.  He, of course, had in the year 1874 not actually seen the Grand Canyon, and his criticism can be, in fact should be, interpreted as praise of the highest order.  

Thomas Moran did not work his way across the Kaibab Plateau to the Canyon's edge in the midst of a thunderstorm to gaze in awe at its fearsome depths to produce a landscape, which mendaciously catered to the more effete sensitivities of an eastern audience.  People who had never seen anything more sublime than the Connecticut Valley cried out, not against his awesome canvas, but for more of the same!

THE NOBLE SAVAGE:  The Native American presents the fifth indelible image of the early American West, and also a bag of contradictions.  First of all, there is the question of the true nature of the 'Red Man' in the wild.  Even before Jamestown, Virginia, there was speculation and disagreement.  

Was he the noble savage noble or just savage?

Did he represent all those lost virtues of the first image or did he present the darker side of the white man's own nature?  For every settler who looked for the best there was another who saw in the Indian the "ultimate moral antagonist, the agent of the devil."

Among the minority who tried to portray the Indian faithfully was the American original George Catlin (1796-1872).  First a lawyer and then a society portrait painter, he undertook painting Indians with a determination that knew no bounds.  He believed rightly that the historic tribes were doomed to destruction and that great work had to be done in the few years left to him and them.  The decade of the 1830's saw Catlin traversing the northern Great Plains sketching everything 'Indian'.  A critical examination of his paintings reveals that they vary greatly in ethnological accuracy as well as in artistic quality.  He was not uninfluenced by the artist conventions and cultural attitudes of his day.  Often he succumbed to the fashionable contemporary romanticism with its myth of the 'noble savage'.   On the other hand, he could describe in gruesome detail the skin piercing self-torture of a Mandan ceremony.  

Contradictions abounded.  Catlin was one of a kind.

In recent years a more troubling contradictory circumstance has come to the fore, though it is seldom addressed.  This is the question of Indian as subject versus Indian as artist.  

Tall, thick, and heavy books on American art do not mention a solitary Native American painter.  

There may have been a time when a relegation of works by Indian artists to the anthropology shelves was unarguably appropriate; today it is arguably inappropriate.  Like other themes of the white man's American West, the 'Noble Savage' image is double sided.  One of them is linked to fantasy and imagination, and the less compelling flip side speaks of reality.

Edited and Submitted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier who holds the copyright

 

About the Author:

From 1982, Dr. Roger Dunbier (1934-1998) combined his professional economics training, research skills, and love of art to develop an easily accessed, 'all-in-one-place' repository of factual information so that buyers and sellers of American art could make decisions based on hard-core data rather than just marketing hype.  With ever-more sophisticated computers, programmed by Charles Lefebvre, his long-time associate, Dunbier built an artist record database, which by the time he died 16 years later, had 21,357 names linked to their respective auction prices, literature and biographies.  Today the result of his dedication lives on as the foundation of AskART.com, an internet site since 2000.  

Dunbier's innovation of computer systems began in 1963, when he pioneered computer mapping on what were then relatively primitive computers.  In 1967, he utilized concepts of 'arbitrage' and 'comparables' in designing the first real estate Multiple Listing System.  Its direct descendent remains in use by realtors across the United States, and he later applied the same underlying principles in building his artist database.  (right: Roger Dunbier, photo courtesy Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, derived from a larger image at http://tfaoi.org/am/16am/16am17.jpg)

Dunbier was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska.  His interest in American art was natural because his father, Augustus Dunbier, (1888-1977) was a prominent landscape, still life and portrait painter and art teacher, whose studio and classroom were in the family home.   Although Roger showed few 'right brained' skills, he did have other talents.  He graduated first in his class and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Omaha in 1955 with majors in economics and history.   He then received a Marshall Scholarship, which led to enrollment at Oxford University in England from 1955 to 1959.  During that time, he was on the Oxford University basketball and track teams, and was a member of the British National Basketball Team.  In 1961, he received a Doctorate of Philosophy, Economic Geography from Oxford.  His dissertation, The Sonoran Desert, Its Geography, Economy, and People, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1960, and subsequently used as a text book for college geography courses.

After formal education, Dunbier held full-time professorial positions for several years at the University of Omaha and the University of California-Irvine.  He lived most of the remainder of his life in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, and had economic-geography related jobs including CEO of his management consulting firm that prepared demographic and locational studies; and President of Metro Press, Inc., publisher of over 100 computer generated area directories for Metro Phoenix.  In 1991, he married Lonnie Pierson of Lincoln, Nebraska.

-- By Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, 2008

 

About this article's editor

Lonnie Pierson Dunbier of Scottsdale, Arizona and originally from Nebraska, married Dr. Roger Dunbier in 1991. From then, she worked full time on his artist database. After his death, she co-founded AskART.com, for which she was Research Director from 2000 to 2007. Ms. Dunbier is also the editor of all other excerpts from Dr. Roger Dunbier's unpublished writing of 601 pages titled WEST IS WEST: Your Money's Worth in Original Painting

 

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