A new exhibit showcases the works of America's greatest Western artists and their way of documenting history.
For its exhibition of beautiful portraits of indigenous Americans and sensitive, stunning portrayals of their life before, during, and after “transition,” the Sid Richardson Museum came up with a title that captures one of the most complicated aspects of American history in a single loaded word: Legacy.
Artists had a front-row seat as observers of the culture clash among cowboys, soldiers, explorers, and Native Americans during westward expansion; sometimes artists were active participants in the transformation. “These are the complex and visually compelling themes that occupied Charles M. Russell, Frederic Remington, and their contemporaries,” says museum director Mary Burke.
Russell and Remington get top billing, but the show includes arresting works by lesser-knowns like William Gilbert Gaul, who left New York in 1876 to travel the West and returned to dedicate himself to painting military and Western scenes. “He was one of the five special agents who took the census of 1890 among the Indians — the first time the U.S. government attempted to count all Indians — and illustrated their findings in ‘Report on Indians Taxed and Indians Not Taxed,’ ” Burke says.
“The comprehensive report by this special team of artists recorded indigenous life in texts, sketches, photographs, and paintings. Traveling to [the Dakotas], Gaul gathered impressions firsthand and offered an unvarnished picture of life on the Sioux reservation. He did not dress up his Indians or show them engaged in activities of an earlier day. Rather, he recorded exactly what he saw.”
One depiction, The Pow-Wow, portrays a scene of everyday life. “One sees within the campsite juxtaposed elements of traditional and Western ways of life: a large tepee in the foreground with several smaller ones in the distance, horses grazing, two women in traditional clothing — and a wagon, metal coffeepot, kettle, and three men wearing articles of Western clothing. It might seem like a straightforward genre scene, but Gaul has, without a great amount of detail, captured a way of life in transition.”
From the November/December 2016 issue.