"The West's Best"

by Peter MacMillan Booth






Though they chose similar topics -- Native Peoples, landscapes, and even a few cowboys -- a new wave of Eastern and European-trained artists explored another side of these Western images and utilized exciting new techniques -- modern, impressionistic, and abstract styles. (left: Walter Ufer, The Southwest, Desert Caballeros Western Museum Permanent Collection)

Around the turn-of-the-century, an increasing number of artists flocked West to escape "civilization." Here they discovered a land filled with pristine subjects that inspired their creative energies. As one stated, in Europe artists were limited to "lady in negligee, lady in the mirror, lady powdering her nose, etc., etc." The West, however, captured their imagination and unlocked a wealth of possibilities. New Mexico, especially, became the focus of their artistic exploration, calling the region their "Western Waldon Pond."

Artists such as Oscar Berninghaus, Joseph Henry Sharp, Herbert Dunton and Fremont Ellis formed groups such as the Taos Society of Artists and Cinco Pintores of Santa Fe. Their creations took Western Art beyond the romanticized realism of the Western Storytellers. Gone were the conflict-based stories, it was a blissful and enchanting land with its inhabitants living in a state of harmony.

Much like the French artist Paul Gauguin who captured the cultural primitiveness of the South Pacific, these artists liked the philosophical and psychological nature of the traditional Native cultures of the West. Some also experimented with modernistic, impressionistic, and abstract art. A few successful Western Storytelling Artists, tired of illustrating for literary magazines, pulp fictions and even the budding Hollywood movie industry, found this new approach refreshing. The most famous illustrator to expand into the use of non-realistic techniques was Maynard Dixon, previously touted as the coming rival of Frederic Remington. However, Dixon became disillusioned with the illustrating industry and complained, "I'm being paid to lie about the West." He saw the switch to fine art as turning to "honest work."


Key Artists

Ethnographer Artists

Many of the artists flocking West, including the famed Taos Society of Artists (1915-1927), were drawn to the unique cultures and people they encountered. DCWM's examples of Taos Society members include, Oscar Berninghaus (1874-1952), Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953), Walter Ufer (1876-1936), and William Herbert "Buck"' Dunton (1878-1936). All four paintings -- Fenced Land, John and Henry, The Southwest and Portrait of a Warrior, respectfully -- reflect one of the more popular themes of the Taos Society artist's -- Native Peoples. Instead of Remington's dramatic or Russell's humorous presentations, the Taos artists (and others) followed the lead of French artist Paul Gauguin who strove to capture the cultural primitiveness of the South Pacific. Likewise, the Taos artists liked the daily life of the traditional and, what they saw as the virtuous, native cultures of the West. For example, Sharp, who was nicknamed the "ethnographer," dedicated himself to capturing the vestiges of a people in their pure state. He and the others strove for the ideal image of "Indianness." These works reflect the sympathetic attitude Sharp and the others felt for the Indians. Even if they did not totally understand their subjects, they did try to imagine the philosophical and psychological nature of the Indians. The painters used dynamic composition, vivid colors, and good forms mixed with impressionism and modernism to capture representative images of the natives. Berninghaus' Fenced Land illustrates this by capturing the impressionistic image of Indians confronting barbed wire for the first time. (right: Joseph Sharp, John and Jerry, Desert Caballeros Western Museum Permanent Collection)

Others followed the trend of painting Native People subjects. Two examples in the DCWM collection are Ira Diamond Gerald Cassidy (1875)-1934) and William Robinson Leigh (1866-1955). Cassidy started his career as a lithographer in New York City, but pneumonia forced him to seek refuge in an Albuquerque sanitarium. This altered his life plans, inspiring him to record Indian life in the context of New Mexican light and color. Before his fine art career blossomed, he worked as a commercial artist and theatrical lithographer in Denver. Recognition finally came in 1915, for his Southwest murals, landscapes, and Navajo native portraits (like the one in the DCWM collection, Navajo Medicine Man). His life came to a premature end in 1925 when he died of poisoning while working on a mural for the Santa Fe Federal Building.

His contemporary, William Leigh, first studied art at the Maryland Art Institute in Baltimore. After returning from Europe in 1896, this "big man with a big mustache and a goatee" set up a studio in New York and unsuccessfully worked as an illustrator for Scribner's and Collier's. He then persuaded the Santa Fe Railroad to send him to New Mexico and Arizona in exchange for a painting of the Grand Canyon. He describes the trip: "I saw Acoma and the Grand Canyon; knew that some of the most distinctive -- characteristic -- dramatic -- poetic -- unique motives in the world were here in this virgin country waiting an adequate hand to do them justice." He later returned to the West whenever possible and completed hundreds of canvases "depicting ever facet of the West, from wild horses to Navajo and from wolf hunts to burro trains." Native subjects were a specialty of his as exemplified by DCWM's Hopi Maiden and Arizona Territory.


Impressionism: Fremont Ellis

(Born: Virginia City, Montana, 1897 - Died: Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1985)

Though born in the rough Montana mining boom town of Fremont, Ellis's family soon moved to New York City. There, with a little formal training at the Art Students League and hours of self-taught practice, he slowly developed. Starting his career as a painter in El Paso, Texas, he then moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1919. Here he quickly became part of an artist colony known as the "Los Cinco Pintores" which means "The Five Painters." They also gave themselves the nickname "Five Nuts in Adobe Huts." He loved the old way of life -- the people, the manners, the customs. This emotional and romantic quality shows in his art. As shown in DCWM's example of his work, Ellis excelled in impressionistic landscapes. He had a rare gift of being able to paint not merely what he saw before his eyes, but also what he felt from within.


Abstract: Gene Kloss

(Born: Oakland, California, 1903-living)

Gene Kloss, born Alice Geneva Glasier, is an example of abstract making its introduction into Western Art. She graduated with honors in Art from Berkeley in 1924 and continued to study at the San Francisco School of Fine Arts in 1924-1925. In 1925, she married Phillips Kloss and shortened her name to Gene for phonetic reasons. In 1929 she became a permanent resident of Taos, where she was an invited guest at Indian ceremonials. Not concerned with the monetary value of art, Kloss sold her works at minimal prices. In 1938 her work was exhibited in Paris as a leading New Mexico artist along with Blumenschein, O'Keeffe and Sloan. She was also elected to the National Academy of Design. DCWM's example of Kloss' work, Indian Ceremonial, was one of nine plates made for the Public Works of Art Project in 1934. The government distributed thirty prints of each to various museums, public buildings and offices.


Modernism: Carl Oscar Borg

(Born: Grinstad, Sweden, 1879 - Died: Santa Barbara, California, 1947)

Other artists, such as Carl Borg, experimented with modernism. The Swedish born artist left his homeland on a freighter, arriving in New York in 1902 after having a brief period of study in London. He eventually settled in southern California where he worked as a scene painter for the budding movie industry. Borg became the first of the great art directors in the movie industry and during his lifetime was one of the most important members of the California art community. His fine art career began with an exhibition of his paintings in 1905. Phoebe Apperson Hearst sponsored him for five years of study abroad where he exhibited his works in major European salons and received several awards. He first visited Indian reservations in Arizona in 1916 while working for the United States Department of Ethnology. Fascinated by the simple way of life and the complexity of Indian beliefs, he returned each spring for many years. He found the modernistic emphasis on minimalizing details and exaggerating simplified lines fit well with his image of the West. His paintings, including DCWM's Canyon de Chelly, succeeded in leaving a record of "primitive purity and simplicity."


Illustrators who Became Fine Artists

Like Borg, who worked in the movie industry, and Cassidy, who was a lithographer for theatrical companies, many of these artists started out as commercial artists or illustrators. As their fame rose, many concentrated on their fine art careers and experimented with other genres besides realism. A great example of such an individual is Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939). Born m Iowa within sight of the Overland Trail, Johnson moved to New York at 21. There he became a successful illustrator for magazines like Field and Stream and authors like Zane Grey. A train trip west into Colorado and Navajo territories started a lifelong, artistic devotion to the West. By 1923, he became successful enough as a fine artist to quit illustrating. He moved out of realism into impressionism, as illustrated in DCWM's Pack Horses from Rim Rock Ranch. He became most famous for his non-violent subjects and his night scenes. His career, though, was cut short in 1939 when he passed away from meningitis contracted from a kiss.

An even better example of one who left realistic illustration to experiment in other art styles is Maynard Dixon (1875-1946). Raised a sickly child in Fresno, California, he spent much of his time drawing. When he was sixteen he sent some sketches to Frederic Remington who encouraged him to continue drawing from nature. He took Remington's advice and whenever possible made long sketching trips throughout the West. He became an illustrator for San Francisco newspapers and later national magazines. DCWM's Two Riders and Cowboy on Foot comes from this time period in his career. After five years in his New York studio, Dixon felt that commercial demands were not allowing him to portray the West as he knew it. "Dixon has known and seen the Western country as something more than a source of astonishment for tourists, and a background for pictoral horse opera." In 1920 his talent was sufficiently recognized so that he was able to give up illustration work and concentrate on easel and mural painting. As shown in the DCWM's Clouds On the Mountains, Dixon utilized modernism to express his vision of the West. The purpose of his work, Dixon claimed, "has always been to get as close to the real nature of my subjects as possible -- people, animals and country."



Other artists specialized in presenting Western landscapes. Leading among these individuals was a group known as the California Impressionists. Edgar A. Payne (1882-1947) ranked as one of the most formidable California artists who depicted the West in this impressionistic style. DCWM's example of a Payne work, Early California, demonstrates his beautiful use of colors and light. Originally trained at the Chicago Art Institute, a 1911 sketching trip to the West presented a variety of scenarios and subjects. He settled in Laguna Beach, California in 1917. From there he traveled through the West focusing on the Sierra Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. He taught art in California, produced records, a movie and created a book on the composition of outdoor painting. He ranks among the most formidable of the California painters depicting the West.

Another less impressionistic Western landscape artist Gunnar Mauritz Widforss (1879-1934), trained as a decorative painter at the Royal Institute of Technology in his native Stockholm for four years. He earned his certificate in 1900 but only practiced his trade when he could not support himself by selling paintings. He traveled through Europe, Africa, and the East Coast of America painting as he went. His work sold in Sweden. In 1921, on his way to the Orient, he stopped in California. He was so impressed by the scenery of Yosemite that he stayed to paint. His work work was brought to the attention of Stephen T. Mather, the first Director of the National Park Service, who encouraged him to specialize in painting the national parks. Henceforth, he concentrated on the parks and their environs for much of his subject matter. The National Gallery of Art exhibited 72 of his watercolors in 1924. The Director, W. Holmes, claimed, "These are the finest things of their kind that have come out of the West. He is possibly the greatest watercolorist in America today." Although Widforss received critical acclaim and won exhibit awards, he was not financially successful. Known mainly for his Grand Canyon images, he also did other scenes throughout Arizona such as the DCWM's image, The Superstitions. He died of a heart attack at the Grand Canyon where he had maintained a studio for several years.

Known as "The Dean of Desert Artists," James Swinnerton (1875-1974) earned a lot of his early fame drawing caricatures, eventually producing the nation's first newspaper comic strip. Working for William Randolph Hearst, Swinnerton launched the strips Little Jenny and Little Tiger. His success, however, was shadowed by alcoholism and tuberculosis. In 1903, when a dry climate was prescribed as his only hope, he moved to Palm Springs, California. From that base he roamed the desert on his burro, sketching and sleeping in the open. With the return of his health, he covered the entire Southwest. In 1907 he explored northern Arizona where he found some of his favorite subjects -- the Grand Canyon and the Navajos and the Hopis. He started "Canyon Kiddies" which ran in Good Housekeeping, becoming the favorite of millions. Over the years his oil paintings took on a new subtlety -- a soft blending of colors and delicate lighting. His paintings of desert scenes (such as the DCWM's Palo Verde and Saguaro -- Arizona Desert), the humble homes of the Navajo or Hopi, the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley have become famous and are in major galleries and private collections.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

return to page 1 of "The West's Best"; Gallery Guide by Peter MacMillan Booth

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. [rev. 5/9/12]

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