Denver’s museums offer the opportunity to learn more about a vibrant region of the world: the American West. Here are three museums that explore American Western art, each with their own fascinating spin on the subject.
History Colorado Center
Art isn’t created in a vacuum — it’s a product of time, place and perspective. That’s the message of History Colorado Center’s Backstory: Western American Art in Context, an exhibition that pairs paintings and sculptures from the Denver Art Museum’s Western American art collection with historical artifacts from the same location and era.
Sponsored by the Sturm Family Foundation, Backstory features art and artifacts spanning more than a century, from the 1830s to the 1940s.
Some highlights include a telescope that belonged to Lewis and Clark, landscapes by Charles Partridge Adams and Albert Bierstadt, the inkstand used at Appomattox Court House by Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee to end the Civil War, an authentic chuck wagon from the Zapata Ranch in the San Luis Valley, the original railroad china from a Denver & Rio Grande dining car, and a never-before-exhibited painting by Kenneth Miller Adams.
But the artifacts don’t just supplement the artwork — they often tell a different story altogether or offer different perspectives to those of the primarily white, male artists.
For instance, reservation ration cards and fliers recruiting cavalry fighters for “immediate service against hostile Indians” are displayed alongside romantic renderings of the Wild West. A display of ceramic bowls from the Ancestral Puebloan communities of Mesa Verde is situated near paintings by early explorers, a reminder that the West was inhabited by indigenous peoples long before its “discovery” by Europeans.
The exhibition runs through Feb. 11, 2018.
American Museum of Western Art
This hidden gem is located inside the historic Navarre building, a four-story brick Victorian constructed in 1880 and nestled among the towers of modern-day downtown Denver. The building, which started as a school for women, went through several iterations before the museum opened in 2010, including a hotel, a restaurant, a jazz club — even a bordello!
Now, after careful restoration, it’s home to the American Museum of Western Art – the Anschutz Collection, which includes more than 300 paintings, drawings and sculptures depicting the people and landscapes of the American West. And there’s a lot to see, with three floors of galleries and nearly every square inch of wall space hung with gilt-framed paintings. The works range in time from the early 19th century explorations of the West up to the present, moving chronologically through time as you ascend floors.
Highlights from the first gallery include George Catlin’s paintings of Mandan Indians from the 1830s, landscapes by Hudson River painters like Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington’s cowboys and bucking broncos, and portrayals of the country’s vanishing American Indian cultures, like Valentine Walter Bromley’s Crow Indian Burial. The third-floor gallery includes color-saturated paintings by Taos Society artists like Ernest Hennings and Bert Phillips, along with works by one of America’s most revered female artists, Georgia O’Keeffe. The top floor features more modern works, such as Kim Wiggins’ trippy renderings of the Santa Fe plaza, Donald Crowley’s photo realistic Raindrops and Helen Frankenthaler’s abstract Phoenix, 1976.
Bonus: the art isn’t restricted to what’s on the walls. Be sure to look up at the hand-painted ceiling in the main gallery, as well as the cupola at the top of the stairwell.
Denver Art Museum
Film buffs won’t want to miss The Western: An Epic in Art and Film, on view at Denver Art Museum through Sept. 10, 2017. This exhibition juxtaposes iconic movie Westerns with paintings, sculptures, photography and illustrations of the American West.
In true theatrical style, The Western starts off by having visitors walk through a curtain and into “The Set,” a room hung with Western landscape paintings. The next room introduces “The Cast” — characters that appear over and over in both art and film: trappers, cowboys, American Indians, pioneer women, cavalry troopers. An 1892 painting of a singing cowboy by Thomas Eakins hangs next to a video of Dean Martin crooning in the movie Rio Bravo from more than half a century later. A photo of the real Calamity Jane — brunette and stocky — overlays a movie poster that shows her as a buxom blonde with a waspy waistline.
“The Dramas” explore the storylines that dominate Western American art and Western films, from train robberies to Indian wars to overland migration. Later galleries delve into the work of specific directors such as John Ford (the “old master” of the Western), who took his inspiration from iconic artists like Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, and Sergio Leone, the Italian filmmaker who pioneered the genre known as the “Spaghetti Western.”
The exhibit moves on to portrayals of the West in ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture art and film — the motorcycle from Easy Rider, Andy Warhol’s The American Indian, movie posters from Blazing Saddles and Midnight Cowboy — a time when the genre became a platform for commenting on everything from the Vietnam War to America’s racial issues. The final gallery brings visitors up to the present day, with clips from contemporary films about the West like Brokeback Mountain, No Country for Old Men and Django Unchained.
“The Western is still a fertile subject for today’s artists,” says Thomas Smith, the museum’s curator of Western American Art. “It really adapts to changes in time and culture.”
Frederic Remington, Dash for the Timber, 1889. Oil on canvas; 48 1/4 x 84 in. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection.
Ute moccasins, late 1800s. History Colorado. 81.98.4
Cowboy boot spurs of John M. Kuykendall, 1880–90. History Colorado. H.13.1
Bucking Broadway from John Ford, 1917, United States, with Harry Carey, Molly Malone & L.M. Wells. © CNC’s Archives françaises du film Collection.