The Anschutz Collection is one of the country’s most-respected exhibitions of western paintings, dating back to the 19th century. Acquired by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, this artwork resides at the American Museum of Western Art in the historic Navarre building in downtown Denver.
The Anschutz Collection includes works created by some of the most famous western artists including Frederic Remington, George Catlin, Charles Marion Russell, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Ernest Blumenschein. The paintings are presented in an organized manner that explains the story of the old west. Transitioning from realism to abstraction, the paintings depict detailed frontier scenes with cowboys, horses, American Indian culture, desert pueblos, and vast landscapes.
The Anschutz Collection surveys the history of the development of American Art as it pertains to the west and provides examples from all of the schools that contributed to that development. As described at the Museum’s website, the schools and genres of art represented in the Collection include:
Expeditionary Artists. The artists who accompanied military, exploring, and fur trade expeditions left a vivid and colorful record of the Old West before it was permanently changed by the advance of the white man’s civilization. George Catlin’s documentation of the manners and customs of the Mandans and more than forty other native communities preserved important historical and cultural information that otherwise might have been lost forever. Just six years after Catlin’s visit to the Mandans in 1832, the tribe was nearly wiped out by smallpox. Seth Eastman, a career Army officer trained in art at West Point, was one of many 19th-century painters whose western experiences were furnished by the U. S. military. The Army was the single largest source of support for artists traveling in the West prior to the Civil War. Alfred Jacob Miller was a struggling young portraitist in New Orleans when he was invited by the wealthy Scottish sportsman and adventurer Captain William Drummond Stewart to record his private expedition to the fur trappers’ rendezvous in the summer of 1837. Miller was the first artist to paint in the Rockies and the only one to depict trappers from life during the heyday of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. His sketches of the journey over the Great Plains to the Wind River Mountains of present-day Wyoming are a unique record of mountain men and the Indians with whom they traded. In 1840, Miller traveled to Scotland, where he painted a series of monumental canvases of Stewart’s adventures in the West to decorate the spacious walls of the nobleman’s ancestral castle. John Mix Stanley accompanied one of four large expeditions commissioned by Congress to determine the optimal route for a transcontinental railroad in 1853. The experience provided Stanley with the raw material for paintings for the rest of his career.
The Hudson River and Rocky Mountain Schools. In the early 19th century, the beauty and vast extent of the American landscape were interpreted as signs of divine favor toward the young republic, and the first self-consciously “American” painters were landscapists who shared a fervent patriotism with their fellow citizens. These artists, most of whom resided in New York City and regularly depicted the rugged terrain of the upper Hudson River and Catskill Mountains, are known as the Hudson River School. Later generations of American landscape painters based in New York, including Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, took the Hudson River School style to the Rocky Mountains. Bierstadt and Moran are the best-known of the risk-taking landscape artists who took advantage of government expeditions to experience adventures and explore territory that would not otherwise have been accessible to them. Their objective was to convey the indescribable light and awesome beauty of the Rockies, and Bierstadt and Moran exploited every technical and imaginative faculty in their power to achieve it. Their efforts were rewarded with tremendous popular acclaim, and their success encouraged other eastern landscapists to go west. The watercolors of geological wonders that Moran produced during his travels with Ferdinand Hayden’s 1871 survey of the Yellowstone country helped persuade Congress to set it aside as the first National Park. Worthington Whittredge holds a special place in the art history of Colorado because many of his paintings depict sites that are readily identifiable, despite the changes that have taken place since his western travels in the 1860s and 1870s.
Narrative Artists. Whether they depicted episodes from history and literature or scenes of everyday life, the narrative painters of the 19th century often found formal inspiration in Renaissance and Old Master art. Many 19th-century American poets, playwrights, and novelists wrote about Indians and the western frontier, and narrative painters mined their works for subjects.
California Painters. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 lured thousands of European and American fortune seekers to the Far West, and a cosmopolitan artistic community soon developed in San Francisco. The German emigrant Charles Christian Nahl joined the rush. When his search for gold proved unsuccessful, Nahl staked his fortunes on his artistic skills. He became the state’s first major artist as well as the leading pictorial historian of early California, celebrating its Spanish heritage in his images of vaqueros, the Hispanic forerunners of the American cowboy.
Interpreters of the Old West. The modern West rapidly took shape in the decades after the Civil War. The completion of the transcontinental railroad hastened settlement and urbanization as well as the confinement of Plains Indians to reservations. However, the close of the frontier only intensified the public’s love affair with the heroic characters and unspoiled beauty of the Old West. An endless stream of dime novels, adventure stories published in illustrated papers and magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, Collier’s, and Field and Stream, and popular spectacles like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West testified to the lasting importance of the West in the American imagination. Frederic Remington, a New Yorker educated at Yale, was the greatest of the western painters and illustrators of the late 19th century. Remington reduced frontier action to its purest form; his iconic images resonate with both the triumph and tragedy of American western history. Like Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell witnessed the last days of the Old West, but he did so from the perspective of a Montana horse wrangler rather than a sophisticated traveler from the East. Russell excelled with figures and horses in complex motion—and often on the verge of disaster. Charles Schreyvogel made his first trip west several years after the end of the Plains Indian Wars. By interviewing cavalry officers and other veterans of those conflicts, Schreyvogel became their premier visual historian.
Golden Age of Illustration. A number of talented artists of the early 20th century achieved lasting distinction as illustrators of short stories and novels. N. C. Wyeth was among the best of these legendary illustrators. His flair for effective design, rich color, and the free handling of paint is evident in his paintings that were published as illustrations in Collier’s Weekly in the early Twentieth Century. Wyeth’s work delighted readers and kept the “myth of the west” alive long after the frontier ceased to exist.
Taos and Santa Fe Schools. By the final decades of the 19th century, most ambitious young American artists spent at least a few years studying in Europe. Upon their return to the United States, they set off in search of picturesque, unmistakably “American” subjects, and they found them in the Indian pueblos and sleepy Hispanic villages of northern New Mexico. In contrast to the tribal communities of the Northern Plains, the pueblo cultures of New Mexico were not situated in the direct path of westward expansion, and they were able to maintain many of their traditions in relative isolation from white civilization. Taos, the site of a thousand-year-old Indian pueblo as well as a Hispanic agricultural community, was the first town in New Mexico to harbor an art colony. Artists were drawn by its cultural diversity as well as its beautiful surroundings. Ernest M. Hennings, who decided to move to Taos from Chicago in 1921, recorded the coexistence of ancient traditions and modern life that made Taos so attractive to artists. The first formal art association in the Southwest was the Taos Society of Artists, founded in 1915 to organize sales exhibitions of the works of its members. The Society circulated exhibitions to major cities, and its fame was further enhanced by the Santa Fe Railroad. The railroad commissioned its members to paint pictures for display in ticket offices and to be reproduced on tickets, calendars, dining car menus, and posters promoting travel in the Southwest. Ernest Blumenschein was one of the most influential members of the Taos Society of Artists. Blumenschein was a musician as well as a painter, and his objective was to bring every natural and man-made element in a composition into perfect harmony. Like Ernest Blumenschein, Walter Ufer often incorporated into his work realistic elements that represent the clash and combination of cultures in the Southwest.
Modernist Art in the West. Northern New Mexico remained a destination for American artists long after the Taos Society of Artists disbanded in 1927. To this day its landscape and people have maintained their appeal for artists working in a wide range of modern styles. Modernism was late in coming to the United States, but it finally arrived with the Armory Show in 1913. The exhibition, which in its New York showing included more than a thousand works by European and American artists, presented the history of modern art from the Neo-Classicism of circa 1800 through the brand-new “isms,” including Fauvism, Expressionism, and Cubism.
Expressionists. Expressionist artists emphasized the communication of emotion through distortions of color, surface, and form. Marsden Hartley worked through a number of modernist styles, but his greatest affinity was for Expressionism, and it came to the fore in his series of “Recollections” of the landscape of New Mexico, where Hartley lived for 18 months in 1918-19. Hartley’s landscapes suggest a brooding spirit. By contrast, Birger Sandzén’s views of the West, filled with brilliant color and lavish brushwork, practically burst with pure joy.
Cubism and Abstraction. John Marin interpreted the New Mexico landscape in an angular, agitated style that seems worlds away from the stately western panoramas of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. The fact that Moran died in 1926, just three years before Marin made his first trip to New Mexico, is a reminder of the speed with which stylistic movements, as well as change in general, have arrived in the American West. The best-known icons of the Southwest are the landscapes of Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe spent much of her early career in New York and in Texas, where she worked as an educator. However, she found her deepest comfort and inspiration in the red hills of New Mexico, which she made her permanent home in 1949.
American Regionalist Painters. The effects of World War I prompted many American artists to reject European modernism in favor of a return to a more realist style and subject matter with which the public could identify. During the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s, the artists known as Regionalists or American Scene Painters documented the America they understood best—a nation of farms, small towns, and inspiring vistas, populated with citizens of honesty and integrity. Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry were midwesterners (from Missouri and Kansas, respectively), and they returned to the heartland after study abroad to paint and to teach.
“New Deal Art” or The Federal Art Projects. The Great Depression, which forced millions of Americans out of work, was no less devastating to artists, and their needs were addressed in the economic relief programs of the Roosevelt administration. The Federal Art Projects benefited musicians and theater personnel as well as artists, and they also made the fine arts available to a vast audience. The government commissioned paintings for post offices, state capitols, and federal buildings in Washington, D. C. In style and subject matter, these works belong to the American Scene movement. However, the younger artists involved in these public art projects, such as the Coloradan Frank Mechau, were not immune to the influence of modernist abstraction. The career of California painter Maynard Dixon was well under way when the Depression began, but he too turned to government commissions for support in the 1930s. Like Mechau, Dixon preferred western themes and developed a style of flattened and simplified forms well-suited to the scale of mural painting.
Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism, born in New York City in the late 1940s, was the first homegrown American modernist style. There is no single Abstract Expressionist style; the artists associated with the group worked in his or her own “signature style,” drawing on earlier modernist movements including Cubism, expressionism, and Surrealism as well as their deepest feelings. Helen Frankenthaler, who is represented in the Collection, developed a method of staining unprepared canvas that resulted in rich harmonies of pure color.
The Anschutz Collection represents more than a century of western history and ever-evolving artistic style. Although the individual experience, technique, and vision of these painters vary, their collective message is clear: the American West has ever been, and remains, an inexhaustible source of inspiration to artists. Indisputably, the course of American art has been enriched and significantly changed by its “Western Experience.”
The Navarre building is a fitting location for the Anschutz Collection – built in 1880 and designed by famed architect Frank E. Edbrooke, its classic Victorian style symbolizes its time in history. The museum is open to the public on a regular schedule for curated tours at 10:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, and by appointment for larger groups on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
American Museum of Western Art
1727 Tremont Place
Denver, CO 80202