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6.4: American West (1800-1900)

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    Significant westward expansion originated in 1803 when Thomas Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase, paying France fifteen million dollars for land west of the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. France only controlled a minimal amount of the region, most inhabited by Native Americans. After the purchase was signed, Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their famous journey to the Pacific Ocean, opening new territory. Artists also traveled with other explorers, painting the wonders and people they observed in the westward expansion. The concepts and necessity of expanding westward were idealized in Manifest Destiny, the principle of a responsibility to conquer, inhabit and prosper. In the new spaces were opportunities for cheap land, minerals, and other financial incentives leading to the Indian Removal Act, the Trail of Tears, and other acts bringing disease and warfare to the tribes, pushing the native peoples further west onto reservations.

    Artists frequently romanticized the settlers, cowboys, miners, soldiers, explorers, traders, and others who were part of the movement into the promised land. The discovery of gold in California brought thousands of people westward, expanding the boundaries of statehood. The railroads crisscrossed the landscape, moving people and expanding trade routes. The Civil War raged in the middle of the movement across the West. The conflict between the North and South increased the migration of people fleeing the war into the new lands. When the war ended, many soldiers became part of the troopers in the West, patrolling the western regions, escorting the continual parade of settlers, and fighting the native tribes.

    A photograph of a river surrounded by granite cliffs, trees, and blue sky
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Yosemite Valley (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

    Part of the lure of the West was the incredible scenery of the extreme mountain peaks (6.4.1), roaring waterfalls, immense trees, and rushing rivers, all inspirations for an artist who traveled the region. Unfortunately, some people wanted to exploit the natural resources; mine the mountains, cut the trees for lumber, level the ground for agriculture, remove the native animals for cattle, or build cities. Artists who journeyed through the West painted incredible sights and images of spectacular beauty. Early writers composed stories and poems about the wonders they saw, all helping to develop a concept of national pride in these untamed wilderness areas in the people of the East and government officials. In 1864, President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, ensuring the protection of Yosemite Valley, the precedent for establishing national parks, and the first time the federal government specified land saved for preservation and use by the public.

    The beauty of the American West also inspired women artists. Unfortunately, the work of female artists was generally unnoticed because most people believed only men could go out and capture the vitality and wildness of the West. The Victorian definitions for the role of women were still followed, and female artists had to overcome the perceptions set for them. Many women traveled throughout the West and painted, sketched, and drew the scenery, mountains, Native Americans, settlers, and rural life. Most of their work was not promoted, or they signed an alias on their work, the art hidden away until recently.

    Women of all backgrounds were artists in the American West, from those inhabiting the regions for centuries to women who traveled from other parts of the country and world. Woman's art defies generalization or any specific category and ranges from the Navajo women who wove to the Paris-trained painter. Subject matters and types of artworks were abundant and varied. Women in the West were also less constrained by European and Eastern American views of behavior, clothing, or status, giving them the freedom to be different. Women in this section include:

    • Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934)
    • Nampeyo (1859-1942)
    • Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel (1873-1954)
    • Nellie Two Bears Gates (1854-1935)
    • Ellen Burpee Farr (1840-1907)
    • Alice Brown Chittenden (1859-1944)
    • Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937

    Gertrude Käsebier

    Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934) was born in Iowa before moving to Colorado as a child, where her father became the first mayor of Golden in the Colorado Territory. The family moved to New York and Pennsylvania during the Civil War. She married, had three children, and declared herself miserable; however, divorce was scandalous, so she remained married. At the advanced age of 37, she attended art school, even moving and studying at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design and traveling to Europe for additional education. Käsebier immersed herself in photography, unusual for a woman, a success for her. She approached photography differently; instead of a documentary approach to her subject matter, she accentuated the subjective view of a person or scene, a painterly methodology.

    When the William Cody Buffalo Bill's Wild West show was in New York, Käsebier remembered her time in Colorado and connections with the Lakota living in the region. She asked William Cody if she could photograph the Sioux traveling with Cody as part of the show. Käsebier did not want to use the images for publicity; she tried to photograph the men as they were behind the scenes, relaxed and intimate, without all the decoration worn at the show. She spent over a decade photographing men, women, and children, sometimes in formal attire and frequently informally.

    Chief Iron Tail (6.4.2) was a veteran of multiple wars, including the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and was considered an elder chief. He traveled with William Cody and the Wild West show for almost twenty years, always leading the show's processions as Chief of the Indians. He agreed to pose for Käsebier, displaying his character; however, Chief Iron Tail did not like the print and tore it apart; Käsebier did a retake in his full regalia, keeping the incredible original image of Iron Tail. Chief Flying Hawk (6.4.3) was also a significant combatant in multiple battles, including the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Great Sioux War of 1876, and the Wounded Knee Massacre. He was only with the show briefly and frequently displayed his anger at the past injustices, a feeling seen on his face in the photograph. He did learn how to supplement his income with tourists at the show, charging a penny for postcards in full regalia.

    A man sitting in a chair with long hair and traditional native clothing
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Chief Iron Tail (ca 1898, platinum print on paper, 28 x 22.4 cm) Public Domain
    A portrait of a man with long hair wear traditional native clothing
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Chief Flying Hawk (1898, platinum print on paper, 20.4 x 15.1 cm) Public Domain
    A man wrapped in a blanket with only his face showing
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The Red Man (1898, photogravure print on paper, 18.4 x 14.9 cm) Public Domain

    Käsebier became known for the soft focus in her photographs, The Red Man (6.4.4), considered one of her most artistic portrayals. She used a simple composition, the sitter was placed only a few feet from the camera, and in this portrait, she was even closer, bringing the man's emotion wrapped in a blanket into the viewer's consciousness. Käsebier printed the negatives in platinum, a process in which the paper absorbs the emulsion, creating a matte, textured surface. Artistic photographers favored platinum prints because they afforded a broad range of tonalities and less mechanical appearance. The pictures are not "black and white"' they include a spectrum of gold, brown, and warm gray shades. Käsebier and other pictorialist photographers asserted that their images should be considered art, which is well supported by these prints' emotional quality and visual complexity.[1]


    Nampeyo (1859-1942) was born on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona and was Hopi-Tewa. She was also known by her Tewa name, Num-pa-yu (Snake that does not bite). Nampeyo lived in a Tewa village located in the middle of Hopi lands. In the early 1700s, the Tewa moved to Hope territory to escape destruction by the Spanish. As part of the Tewa tradition, Nampeyo was part of the Tewa Corn clan of her mother. Nampeyo had three older brothers; none of the children ever went to school, and she did not read or write. After Nampeyo married, she had five children. The first time a traveling photographer photographed her work was in 1875. Afterward, Nampeyo became one of the most well-known and photographed ceramic artists (6.4.5) in the Southwest territories. Unfortunately, Nampeyo lost her eyesight and the beginning of the 20th century and only made her pottery by touch, leaving family members to paint the designs.

    The Hopi were known for their exceptional ceramic designs, and Nampeyo was considered one of the best. Her designs were based on old Hopi from the fifteenth century found in ancient ruins. Nampeyo's husband helped her find shards of ancient pottery whose images inspired her designs. She communicated the life of her ancestors by using their images as the basis of her work. Nampeyo stated, "When I first began to paint, I used to go to the ancient village and pick up pottery pieces and copy the designs. That is how I learned to paint. But now I close my eyes and see designs, and I paint them."[2]

    Nampeyo used ancient ceramic techniques and added sheep bones to the fire. The fire was hotter and produced whiter pottery. After the pottery was fired, Nampeyo smoothed them with a red-blossomed plant, following the ancient methods. Most potters only used two types of clay; however, Nampeyo incorporated up to five clays for one pot. Her early pottery was broad, low, and rounded, and in her later career, she moved to tall jars. The butterfly or moth design (6.4.6) was a typical image the early Hopi used based on depictions of elements from nature. In this ceramic piece, the six months are geometrically arranged and painted with dramatic and decorative sections. In between the moths are symbolic patterns representing Hopi images. Nampeyo's work is frequently termed Hopi Revival pottery, the pairing of proto-historic pottery from the old Hopi communities with her vision and style. Nampeyo's pottery followed the low-shoulder early Sikyatki design shape with fine, thin walls. Nampeyo's pottery was identifiable by the long strokes she used to polish the pottery. Her works usually resulted in a rich yellow-orange color (6.4.7). Nampeyo did not make any sketches or drawings, only creating the painted patterns as she worked.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Nampeyo and examples of her work (Public Domain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Sikyatki moth-pattern jar (ca. 1895, ceramic and pigment) (Public Domain)


    A small seed pot with a neutral background and circular designs in orange and black

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Seed Jar (1905, ceramic and pigment) (Public Domain)

    Nampeyo polychrome jar

    Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa), polychrome jar, c. 1930s, clay and pigment, 13 x 21 cm (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution) Speakers: Dr. David Penney, Associate Director for Museum Scholarship, Exhibitions, and Public Engagement, National Museum of the American Indian and Dr. Steven Zucker.


    Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel

    Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel (1873-1954) was from Wisconsin. Her mother and grandfather were also artists. Wachtel studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago and later taught art at public schools and the Institute. Initially, she painted standard portraits and figures until she moved to California. She was entranced with the dramatic countryside in the western part of the country. Initially, she used watercolor to paint the landscapes she found around Santa Barbara and along the coast. One writer stated, "She handles watercolors in a free, fearless way, more like a man than a woman."[3] After she married, her artist husband always used oil paint and wanted her to continue only to use watercolors. Wachtel had an outstanding reputation as one of the best watercolorists of the period. Because she was trained by an Impressionist painter when she attended the Institute, Wachtel's work was known for her handling of light and its reflective qualities in her landscapes. After her husband died, Wachtel started using oil paint.

    This exquisite work of art, Sunset Clouds (6.4.8), offers a truly awe-inspiring view of the California foothills against the grandeur of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The towering trees in the foreground, with their somber and natural sway, contrast beautifully with the white clouds that float elegantly across the vast, blue expanse of the sky in the background. The esteemed artist, Wachtel, displays his exceptional talent through masterful brushstrokes that expertly capture the twisted trunks and branches of the trees, which endure California's harsh, arid climate with grace and resilience. The dry, rocky road that leads the observer from the foreground of the painting to the distant mountains creates a profound sense of depth and perspective, further enhancing the viewer's appreciation of the natural beauty that Wachtel has skillfully brought to life on the canvas.

    a painting of a hiking trail through mountains with large trees against blue skies
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Sunset Clouds (1904, oil on canvas, 292 x 370 cm)(Public Domain)
    Interactive Element: Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel

    Julien's Auctions: Property From The Collection of Jane Fonda Artwork - Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel

    Nellie Two Bears Gates

    Nellie Two Bears Gates (1854-1935) was born on the Standing Rock Reservation spanning North and South Dakota. Her father was the well-known warrior, Chief Two Bears, who fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Gates' Dakhóta name was Mahpiya Bogawin (Gathering of Clouds Woman). As a child, she was separated from her family and forced to a boarding school, compelling her to stop all her native life and learn the white man's ideas. When she returned home, Gates reembraced her Dakhóta history and language. She married and had seven children. Gates did beadwork based on centuries of historical designs. She used beads imported from Europe as she still worked with ancestorial techniques. Gates was considered a master and one of the most accomplished artists with beads. She made objects as gifts for the family to celebrate a special event, incorporating designs depicting family events and geometric shapes.

    The Valise (6.4.9) is a remarkable art piece showcasing a traditional ceremony of the Dakhóta people. The ceremony is depicted through intricate beadwork, which tells the stories of the Dakhóta community. The valise is divided into two sides, each representing different aspects of the ceremony. On one side of the valise, we see a bride accompanying her family as they bring food and gifts to the wedding celebration. The bride is adorned in traditional clothing, and her family members are dressed in their best attire. The scene is surrounded by eleven horses forming two sides while figures stand by the suspended kettles. The bottom section of this side of the valise features the bride standing next to a tipi adorned with various hanging robes and blankets. The intricate beadwork on this side of the valise is a testament to the skill and creativity of the Dakhóta people. On the other side of the valise, we likely see the groom's family and the wealth he brings to the union. The scene is similarly detailed, with intricate beadwork depicting the groom and his family. Gates was well-known for "the tightness of applied beadwork, vibrancy of color, and exquisite detail is shown in forming imaginative compositions."[4] The valise is a true work of art, and it serves as a powerful reminder of the rich culture and traditions of the Dakhóta people.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Valise (ca. 1880-1910, beads, hide, metal, oilcloth, thread, 31.7 x 44.9 x 26 cm) (Public Domain)
    Interactive Element: Beaded Suitcase

    Nellie Two Bear Gates, Suitcase, 1880-1910, beads, hide, metal, oilcloth, thread (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

    Ellen Burpee Farr

    Ellen Burpee Farr (1840-1907) was from New Hampshire and received art training at the New Hampton Institution. Her family was long established in the New England area. Farr's talent was evident in school; however, becoming an artist was not a career for young girls from well-established, wealthier families. She married and had three children. Her husband fought in the civil war before he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. After Farr's husband died in 1880, she first moved to Boston to continue her training as an artist. Then, she moved to Southern California and became known for her paintings of pepper trees, a typical California tree, bright orange poppies, citrus, and images of Native American baskets. Although Farr's career was delayed by marriage and children, she was very successful after she moved to California.

    A Blossoming Pepper Tree (6.4.10) is an example of the many pepper tree images Farr painted with her signature tree leaves and the characteristic red seed pods resembling berries. Farr captures one small section of the tree branch, displaying the curved branches holding the pointed green leaves. She painted the berries in multiple stages of life, from the greenish-pink new berries, the ripe red berries, and the tiny fuzzy-looking stems where the berries have fallen off. Farr also used sunlight to highlight the front parts of the tree limb to the darker section in the back. Red and green are complementary colors, and the pepper tree produces a good color contrast lesson. The crushed feathery leaves smell like black pepper. Pepper trees grew all over Southern California, an elegant drought-tolerant tree famous at the time.

    A painting of a tree with green thin leaves and tiny pink peppercorns
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): A Blossoming Pepper Tree (before 1907) (Public Domain)

    Alice Brown Chittenden

    Alice Brown Chittenden (1859-1944) was born in New York and moved to California when she was young. Chittenden attended the School of Design (now called San Francisco Art Institute) and studied drawing and painting. She was married; however, Chittenden left her husband before her daughter was born and lived with her parents, never remarrying. Although women had more educational opportunities, the art of women artists was still considered inferior. Chittenden and other women worked to overcome the stereotype and united through social reforms and the movements to vote. Chittenden occasionally traveled to Europe to study and exhibit her art; however, most of her time was in San Francisco. Her specialty was paintings of California wildflowers. A prolific painter, Chittenden painted over 350 different varieties of California wildflowers. An East Coast newspaper 1895 declared her the "leading flower painter in America." Chittenden traveled throughout the state, even on horseback in the Sierras, to sketch and paint the wildflowers she found. In 1885, the San Francisco Art Association held the first prominent women's exhibition in the United States, focusing on Chittenden's work.[5]

    Chrysanthemums (6.4.11) and Roses (6.4.12) are two of her hundreds of unique paintings of flowers. In these paintings, Chittenden has cleverly used white chrysanthemums as the centerpiece to draw the viewer's attention before allowing them to appreciate other chrysanthemums. The more miniature, delicate pink chrysanthemums are scattered further away from the center. Meanwhile, the bigger and heavier flowers are depicted as if they were tumbling out of a basket. The artist has also included roses in this painting, using the same-sized blooms in similar hues. At times, it can be challenging to differentiate between the different rose varieties due to how the light is shining or because of their similar colors.

    A painting of flowers in whites, yellows, and pinks flowing out of a woven basket on a table
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Chrysanthemums (1888, oil on paper) (Public Domain)


    Roses in a clear vase on a white table cloth
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Roses (1898, oil on paper) (Public Domain)


    Grace Carpenter Hudson

    Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937) was born in Northern California. Her parents were photographers, and her father recorded the new enterprises of shipping, logging, and railroads in undeveloped regions of California. Hudson's mother was one of the few white teachers assigned in the area to teach children from the Pomo people. At fourteen, Hudson attended the San Francisco School of Design, whose curriculum focused on painting from actual nature scenes, not copying other paintings. Hudson excelled in school but married when she was sixteen and stopped school. After a year, she divorced and went back home, painting images for magazines. Her second marriage was successful, and they both spent time recording Native American culture in the region, hoping to preserve the Pomo way of life. Many of Hudson's paintings were images of Pomo babies and children. She had to sketch or photograph a child secretly as the Pomo parents believed a photograph might result in a negative result. Hudson also traveled for a vacation to Hawaii, still a territory, to paint multiple images of Hawaiians. Hudson was commissioned to paint the Pawnee Nation people living in Oklahoma Territory. The mortality rate for the Pawnee was exceptionally high after the devastation of European diseases and forced removal from their homeland. Hudson spent most of her time painting portraits of the chiefs and elders. Unfortunately, most of her Pawnee paintings were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

    Hudson's collection boasts an impressive array of artworks; among them, the National Thorn (6.4.13) painting holds a special place. This piece depicts a Pomo infant sleeping peacefully in a cradle basket guarded by a loyal and tiny dog. The cradle's construction is a testament to the ingenuity of the Pomo people, as it involves weaving together willow or dogwood twigs with cotton or jute, resulting in a sturdy and unique piece. The cradle basket often featured decorations that revealed the baby's gender, and the baby was swaddled in tule cloth, which was easily washable. The mother could keep the cradle basket close while working and then carry the baby on her back, making it a practical and functional piece. Hudson's painting is a true masterpiece, capturing every intricate detail of the baby's cloth, the dog's expression, and the striking patterns of the White and blue blanket.

    Hudson's awe-inspiring artistic creation, Greenie with Two Yellow Puppies (6.4.14), is a true masterpiece showcasing a remarkable blend of tranquil and subdued color tones. The captivating speckled gray background adds an extra layer of depth to this masterpiece, making it all the more mesmerizing. The central figure of the piece is a charming young toddler, captured in all its delightful innocence, walking alongside two adorable and playful canines. The toddler's printed attire stands out brilliantly against the natural scenery, creating a striking, soothing, and energizing contrast. Overall, this artwork is a testament to Hudson's immense talent and artistic vision.

    Despite facing immense challenges, such as European diseases and the consequences of white man's expansion, the Pomo tribe persevered. Thankfully, there were individuals like Hudson and her husband who empathized with the Pomo people and worked toward the preservation of their culture. Hudson's artwork served as a powerful tool to raise awareness about their struggles and make a positive impact. Her ability to compassionately portray each child in her work earned her critical acclaim and the public's admiration, with her pieces selling out quickly.

    A baby in a cradle wrapped in a white and blue blanket with a black dog watching over it.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): National Thorn (1891, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 76.2 cm) (Public Domain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Greenie with Two Yellow Puppies (1896, oil on canvas, 26 x 20.3 cm) (Public Domain)


    [1] Hutchinson, E. (2002). When the "Sioux Chief's Party Calls": Käsebier's Indian Portraits and the Gendering of the Artist's Studio. American Art, 16(2), 41-65. Retrieved June 2, 2020, from

    [2] Retrieved from

    [3] Retrieved from

    [4] Retrieved from

    [5] Retrieved from

    This page titled 6.4: American West (1800-1900) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (Open Educational Resource Initiative at Evergreen Valley College) .

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