This was the first museum I visited which was wholly dedicated to western art, and it was a lot more interesting than I expected. I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly. There were three areas of particular interest to me that I’ll highlight here, but if what floats my boat doesn’t float yours, go visit this museum anyway! There is a LOT of variety.
I’ll start with the non controversial part. (Heh, heh…see what I did there? Are you wondering what’s coming up?) There was a section devoted to different artists’ interpretations of a single subject, in this case Yellowstone Falls. I love this kind of a presentation, because every time I visit a National Park or someplace really beautiful I see hundreds of people photographing the exact same location, and I’m very aware that at the end of the day, there will be thousands of photos and none of them exactly alike. Everybody sees things just a little bit differently, and that’s just through a camera lens! If you add the artistic expression of paint or sculpture or whatever, things just get that much more interesting. So here I’m posting a photo I took of Yellowstone Falls, along with a small selection of the paintings that were presented in this exhibit. Please note as always, that I do not own these images (except the photo), and there will be subtle distortions in both the image and color here.
The second thing that I absolutely loved about this museum, and the entire center really, including the outdoor spaces, was the incredible sculpture. There were large and small works by celebrated artists like Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington, along with artists that were not familiar to me. A well laid out exhibit also walked through how bronze artist Alexander Phimister Proctor produced his large scale pieces, which was very interesting. My favorite piece presented inside was Frederic Remington’s, “Coming Through the Rye”, where the entire piece is composed in such a way that the maximum number of horse hooves are suspended in air, giving it a strong sense of movement. My favorite piece outside was a large scale work by sculptor Richard Greeves titled, “The Unknown” (1986). I was surprised to learn he is a self taught artist, and that we are both originally from the same area of Missouri. “We’ve all been out in the hills somewhere, sitting and looking off at a wonderful vista and wondering what it was like when the first man ever saw that,” he says of the 14-foot sculpture depicting six Indians, from a young boy to an old man, looking onto a horizon. I’ve had that exact thought many times while on my big trip.
Now for the controversial part, and here is the painting entitled, “Indian Elopment” by Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874).
I had never heard of the artist, but this painting really called out to me, and I stood there for a few minutes trying to figure out why before I realized it was the way the artist presented these people in a very gender ambiguous way. I thought maybe I was reaching for an interpretation here, so I did a little background research and discovered Miller was one of the earliest and most important artists to paint the American West (and again, I had never heard of him), but was not very well known during his lifetime because he largely worked on commission for a few wealthy clients, including Captain William Drummond Stewart, a retired British officer, who persuaded Miller to join him in 1833 attending an annual rendezvous of fur trappers and traders in the Rocky Mountains. Miller was to record a visual record of the journey. That trip took only a few months, but provided Miller with enough sketches to continue painting studies of the American West for many years. As I researched Miller’s work, I didn’t find it as inspiring or compelling as the work of say, George Catlin (a contemporary who also painted similar subject matter). Miller’s work was to me, more a faithful representation of what he saw, with a side of romanticism. So how did Miller end up being such a prolific painter and how is it that I’d never heard of him? Also, was I imagining the gender ambiguity?
It was Stewart who essentially launched Miller’s career, and provided much of his livelihood for a time, providing major commissions and a relationship of some sort over several years. With a little bit of additional digging, I discovered a book about Stewart entitled, “Men In Eden: William Drummod Stewart and Same-Sex Desire in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade”, author William Benemann, in which Stewart is described as a “flamboyant Scottish nobleman who found in American culture of the 1830s and 1840s a cultural milieu of openness in which men could pursue same-sex relationships.” Benemann is a bit of a sexual historian, which apparently is a thing, and apparently is necessary because as it turns out, gay lives have been omitted from the history books very much in the same way that women’s lives often have. I honestly never stopped to consider this before, but this painting ended up reminding me that who and what gets remembered is largely a function of who is in charge of presenting history, a theme which I’ve shared here before as one that is interesting to me.
Ultimately, I don’t know if Miller was making a statement on gender roles or not here, but given the known history I suspect the answer was yes. It certainly landed that way for me. History does not record the nature of Stewart and Miller’s relationship, although Benemann certainly leads us to some clear inferences based on what IS known. Regardless, it was the power of a single painting that moved me to learn quite a bit more about the American West than I knew before, and for that I’m grateful.
And now to bring us all back from that somewhat controversial view, here is a bonus photo of a modern painting on display that I found to be quite beautiful:
Overall Impression: A wonderful time spent at a world class art gallery that ends up being a thought provoking day. Perfect!
Cost: The Whitney Western Art Museum is included as part of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West admission ticket.