I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West

Jules David Prown, et.al.

Published six years after The West of the ImaginationDiscovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West, in Nancy K. Anderson’s essay, addresses the fact that only recently had American western art won acceptability in the art world, suggesting that perhaps the Goetzmanns were successful in playing a role in bringing legitimacy to the genre. Like The West of ImaginationDiscovered Lands, Invented Pasts discusses the development of western art, but in a less linear fashion—probably due to the effects of multiple-authorship. The essays emphasize the fact that western art is a European record of the exploration and settlement of North America, as all of the artists were of European descent and were painting under the influence of their inherent western viewpoints. Emphasis on the plurality of “viewpoints” is necessary because, like the Goetzmanns, the writers in Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts subscribe to the belief that the paintings and the histories that these artists created were made under the influence of a multiplicity of meanings, assumptions, and agendas. However, all of them fed into the general process of creating myth, whether it was for the intention of pandering to the curious Easterners or legitimizing their presence and behavior, like in Turner’s Frontier Thesis. Landscapes are particularly important to these authors because they assert that the people and the land were in a constant process of changing and reconstructing each other. Through discovering lands, people invented new pasts, and by inventing new pasts, they created new lands. Discovering Lands, Invented Pasts is intended to be a revisionist history of American west artwork.

Three major themes run throughout the essays and analyzed artworks in Discovering Lands, Invented Pasts. The first theme is that of discovery. The job of the first artists to venture forth into the uncertainty of the West was to record their first impressions of the landscape and peoples for the curious audiences in the East. Like the Goetzmanns, Martha A. Sandweiss, in “The Public Life of Western Art,” highlights the importance of showmanship and distribution to these artists. The second theme is that of erasure, which refers to the purposeful exclusion of those peoples, wildlife, and pasts that did not lend to substantiation of whatever myth they were trying to propagate. William Cronon offers an excellent example of this in the case of national parks. These parks, he argues, are the product of the historical invention of desolate regions, the Indians and whites that lived on and modified the land beforehand being wiped from official memory. Another example, which Susan P. Schoelwer discusses is the absence of women in these works of art. Western art, even today, remains a masculine domain, she writes, where the reality of human populations seem immaterial. For instance, the paintings of mountain men are sans females because women did not fit into the image of the independent mountain man, free of domestic and social responsibilities. Schoelwar boldly suggests that perhaps western paintings do not represent the confirmation of masculinity, but, rather, a crisis in gender identity. The third myth is that of invention or the way that various groups of individuals interacted in order to define what being American meant. This process of invention was often swept up in the oppositional throes of romanticism and purported scientific examination.

The essays in Discovering Lands, Inventing Pasts challenge the Goetzmanns assertion that western paintings were largely representational, not knowingly abstract in nature. Discovering Lands, Inventing Pasts examines the intentional placement of misleading or less-than-realistic imagery, as well as those pieces that were included subconsciously. Cronon argues that the artists were largely aware of their place in the historic record, and this, thus, encouraged them to include symbolism in their paintings. Additionally, the fact that the majority of the artists were painting for wealthy westerners or those in the East means that they inevitably skewed their images to please their audience, and consequently, participated in the myth-making process by misleading the public by pleasing their pre-ordained perceptions. Sandweiss’ treatment of western art is comparable to that which she gives photographs in Print the Legend. In both instances she emphasizes the importance of mass production and consumption of the images in the creation process—this market side of western artwork production is typically left out of analyses.

Feature Image: An untitled 1932 oil painting by George Sanderson Bickerstaff, displayed at the Buffalo Gap Historic Village in the unincorporated Taylor County, Texas, town of the same name, near Abilene. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Library of Congress. 

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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