Fine Arts Museum News

Exhibit Shows the American West as Portrayed by Currier & Ives

Michele & Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts

June 23, 2011

Currier & Ives images of the American West will be on view at the Michele & Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts from June 28, 2011-January 29, 2012 in the special exhibition Imagining the Frontier: Landscape and Hunting Scenes of the American West.

Fascination with the Western frontier had a major influence on American art in the 19th century. Currier & Ives mass produced images that witnessed the great drama of Westward expansion, including the California gold rush, trappers and pioneers traveling to unknown territories, conflicts with Indians, buffalo hunting, fires on the prairie, and the building of the transcontinental railroad.

Over 60 million buffalo once roamed the American plains. One 19th-century traveler noted that “the plains were black and appeared as in motion.” The majority of the artists who worked for Currier & Ives never visited the Great Plains and had to rely on written accounts of the appearance of buffalo to create their designs. The result was that in some Currier & Ives prints, such as The Rocky Mountains, the buffalo look a bit like furry lions. By 1893, only 300 buffalo remained, and they were brought back from the edge of extinction only by continued conservation efforts over the last one hundred years.

Images such as The Great West, with a steam train crossing a vast landscape, showed the expanse of the American frontier, a popular and saleable subject for Currier & Ives lithographs. The title helped to romanticize the idea of Westward expansion.  In 1870, they used the word "great" in as many as nine different titles. Through the use of this imagery Currier & Ives promoted the natural beauty of the American landscape and expressed pride in the country’s expansion across the continent to the Pacific Ocean.

In many cases, the prints represented the winning of the West as a triumph not of the white man over the wilderness but over the Native American. Today historians often criticize Currier & Ives for the blend of fantasy and reality in their images of the West.

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