Lure of the West

By Amy Pastan

A major exhibition titled Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum features 64 paintings and sculptures from the 1820s through the 1940s by American artists fascinated with Indian and Hispanic cultures and the majestic landscapes of the western territories. These artworks served to establish American art and its subject matter as new and exciting to audiences worldwide.

Lure of the West is part of “Treasures to Go,” a program of eight thematic exhibitions organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum to travel the country while its landmark building in Washington, DC, undergoes renovations. Lure of the West is on display at the University of Iowa Museum of Art in Iowa City, IA, from January 20 through March 18. It then travels to the Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando, FL; the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson, WY; the Huntington Library, Art Collection & Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA; the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University, Provo, UT; and the Lyman Allyn Museum, New London, CT. You can find more information on the museum’s Web site,

Red Pepper Time. painting, southwest art.

Oscar Berninghaus

Red Pepper Time [about 1930], oil, 25 x 30 1/16, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Arvin Gottlieb.
In 1899, Oscar Berninghaus was commissioned by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to illustrate its advertisements. This work took him to the Southwest. He spent every summer there, finally settling in Taos in 1925. Berninghaus believed that “the canvases that come from Taos are as definitely American as anything can be. We have had French, Dutch, Italian, German art. Now we must have American art.”

The artist must have been impressed with the red chili peppers hanging against the muted tones of native homes in Lavacita, NM. Like royal robes, they give the sleepy town a luster and dignity, becoming rich flags for the rustic dwellings. Two native women walk up the dirt road toward us, but our eye can’t keep up with their progress. We keep focusing on those peppers, surely a source of pride and beauty—as well as seasoning—for the villagers.

Elk Foot of the Taos Tribe. painting, southwest art.

E.I. Couse

Elk-Foot of the Taos Tribe [1909], oil, 78 1/4 x 36 3/8, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William T. Evans.
This is a romantic and imposing image. Elk-Foot, draped in an earthy red blanket—actually a fabric called “stroud,” which was imported from England—appears royal and aloof. He looms above us, casting his eyes downward but to the side. He never makes eye contact but seems to know we’re here, although he is unmoved by our presence.

Among the first artists to work in Taos, Couse borrowed heavily from traditional academic sources. The angled head graced with vivid red feathers, the large hand spread across his lap, and the parted robe revealing elaborately beaded and fringed boots all create a wonderful composition. We also sense a power here, perhaps emanating from Elk-Foot’s coupstick. In his culture, the first warrior to strike an enemy with this stick was awarded a scalp.

This idealized portrait of Elk-Foot derives from a carefully posed studio photograph of the Taos native, who was one of Couse’s favorite models. Critics today have focused on Couse’s liberal license in depicting this warrior of the Taos tribe wearing moccasins of the Plains Indians, as well as other inauthentic details. But the extraordinary canvas conveys the appeal of exotic Indian cultures, which was attracting many tourists to the Southwest at the time.

Indian Women Making Pottery. painting, southwest art.

Catherine C. Critcher

Indian Women Making Pottery [about 1924], oil, 40 1/8 x 37 1/8, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Arvin Gottlieb.

At the lower right, one native woman uses a fine brush—or perhaps a stick dipped in paint—to create a geometric design on an earthenware vase. Seated behind her, a woman in a teal shirt and purple skirt grinds corn on a stone metate. Behind them on a stool, forming the peak of this triangular composition, a man looks beyond the canvas. An empty niche in the adobe wall waits to be filled with ceramic treasures, which—by 1924—would have been sold to eager tourists.

Critcher visited New Mexico for the first time in 1920 and was intrigued by the possibilities of portraying the Pueblo Indians and Spanish people. In 1924, she became the only female member of the influential Taos Society of Artists.

Feast Day San Juan Pueblo. painting, southwest art.

William Penhallow Henderson

Feast Day: San Juan Pueblo [about 1921], oil, 22 x 30, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Alice H. Rossin in memory of Dr. Joshua C. Taylor.
Henderson moved to Santa Fe in 1916 due to his wife’s failing health. There he became an important member of the Taos Society of Artists, which had held its inaugural exhibition the year before. Here, with simple shapes and bold colors, Henderson documents a feast day in a southwestern Pueblo settlement. We are looking down into a small plaza dominated by a simple church, whose angelic statues loom over the tree line toward the gathering in town.

Henderson conveys the vivid colors of the women’s garments with visible brush strokes outlined in black. The houses are little more than orange-colored boxes splashed with yellow, rose, and green. Simple tree and mountain shapes make jagged steps right up to the top of the picture at right. That line gives the composition a grand perspective. We have the sense that we are looking down from a great height on the brilliant multitude gathered under the canopy to eat, listen to the lone drummer, and celebrate the mesmerizing landscape.

Like many of the artists who were entranced by New Mexico, Henderson was captivated by the lives of the local people, whose customs remained unchanged by progress.
Joseph Henry Sharp Making Sweet Grass Medicine, Blackfoot Ceremony [about 1920], oil, 30 x 36 1/8, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Victor Justice Evans.

Three young men with long braids, colorful headgear, fringed pants, and beaded shoes are seated in a circle in the warmth of a teepee. Their looks of concentration are indicators of the importance of the ceremony in which they are involved. Making medicine was a ritual action that preceded any new enterprise to ensure its success. While the ritual varied among the tribes, it often entailed the empowerment of objects that would act as magic fetishes and would be carried in “medicine bags.” The ritual typically involved the cleansing of these objects with smoke.

Young Omahaw, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees. painting, southwest art.

Charles Bird King

Young Omahaw, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees [1821], oil, 36 1/8 x 28, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Miss Helen Barlow.
One of the most modern-looking of early western images, King’s dramatic group portrait continues to impress museum visitors. The way each figure’s gaze is directed at a different part of the room, the dramatic blood-red face paint and colorful wampum (beads), and—perhaps most wonderful—the colorful spiked hair of the men enhanced with deer hair draw us in.

The central figure wears a peace medal with President Monroe’s profile. It is suspended, ironically, just above his war club. Surely this group, which was painted in the artist’s studio in Washington, DC, wanted to make an impression, for its delegation had come east to negotiate with U.S. legislators concerning its right to broker land deals. The artist managed to convey the noble dignity of the representatives, so crucial to its important mission.

E. Martin Hennings

Hennings’ poetic style and bright palette defy categorization. He never felt himself to be part of a movement and asserted, “My standpoint is that art is either good or bad and its school has not a great deal to do with it. In every picture I expect the fundamentals to be observed, and these I term draftsmanship, design, form, rhythm, color. Art must of necessity be the artist’s own reaction to nature and his personal style is governed by his own temperament, rather than by a style molded through the intellect.”

Mountain Forms. painting, southwest art.

Victor Higgins

Mountain Forms #2 [about 1925-27], oil, 40 1/2 x 43 1/16, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Arvin Gottlieb.
Rising and building in size, almost to the top of the canvas, these green and earth-colored mountains are “forms,” shapes that become majestic in volume and scale when one stands back from the image. Tiny figures in single file are headed across a misty gorge toward those daunting heights. They are drawn to the mountains’ abstract beauty, climbing over a slumbering beast toward a darker destination, perhaps on a religious pilgrimage.

Higgins divides his large triangular forms into “foothills” by using curving blue brush strokes to convey separate forms. The ragged geometry of the mountains and the neutral sky pressing down create a tension.

This is one of five “Mountain Form” canvases that Higgins painted between 1924 and 1927. Only two still exist; the other three are known through photographs. All works place the spectator at an elevated vantage point, but only Mountain Forms #2 contains a human element. Higgins cited the area’s elemental appeal as his inspiration, saying it “urges the painter to get his subjects, his coloring, his tone from real life, not from the wisdom of the studios.”

Featured in January 2001