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Westward expansion was one of the most transformational elements in American life throughout the nineteenth century. Printed imagery played an important role in the dissemination of knowledge and understanding about the West and those who inhabited it. Imprinting the West: Manifest Destiny, Real and Imagined features 48 hand-colored engravings and lithographs that explore these depictions and the influence artists had on the perception of the wild west.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the expansive territory known as Louisiana from Napoleon, King of France, a transaction that extended the nation’s boundaries by 828,000 square miles, including all of present-day Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, and parts of Minnesota, North and South Dakota, New Mexico, Texas, Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Louisiana. The Louisiana Purchase set the stage for great exploration and discovery, migration and settlement, in addition to struggle and conflict. Convinced that God wanted the country to extend to the Pacific coast—an idea called “Manifest Destiny”—scores of American citizens, including painters and printmakers, moved west.
The works featured in Imprinting the West explore the potent imagery of the time that shaped how the American Indians and the West were understood. Westward expansion in the nineteenth century was intertwined closely with the experiences of American Indian peoples. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 dislocated native populations in the east to areas west of the Mississippi River and was justified by the self-serving claim that the so-called “savages” would wither in the presence of “civilization.” The migration westward and settlement of white Americans only accelerated territorial tensions, which often culminated in bloodshed.
Several artists, including George Catlin, aspired to document the appearance and ways of the so-called “vanishing race.” Artists also accompanied governmental geographical surveys of the west, making landscapes and portraits that illustrated official publications. Such images were available in a variety of printed formats: portfolios of lithographs, prints made by creating and transferring an image on a prepared stone, were offered by subscription. Hand-colored lithographs, like those featured in Imprinting the West, were sold at higher prices. Paintings by well-known artists, such as western landscape painter Albert Bierstadt, were sometimes engraved for the mass market. Also, later in the century, art was engraved to illustrate articles in popular periodicals, including Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Much of this imagery was created with an international or an eastern audience in mind, and it both drew from and promoted fantasies about Native Americans and the west as much as it documented reality.
Imprinting the West is curated by Dr. Randall Griffey, now Head Curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. In 2011, Griffey contributed “Reconsidering ‘the Soil’: The Stieglitz Circle, Regionalism, and Cultural Eugenics in the 1920s” to the catalogue accompanying the Brooklyn Museum’s traveling exhibition Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties. Griffey has also served as Curator of American Art at the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, and as Associate Curator of American Art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO.
ExhibitsUSA (EUSA) is a traveling exhibition program managed by Mid-America Arts Alliance.
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