Lecture #8:
Telling Tales on Canvas: Mythic Narratives of Frontier Change

Suggestions for Further Reading:

This lecture is based on the published essay, William Cronon, "Telling Tales on Canvas: Landscapes of Frontier Change," in the book Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West (1992). You can read the original essay here: PDF.

Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (1920).

Bernard De Voto, Across the Wide Missouri (1947).

Herman J. Viola, Exploring the West (1988).

William H. Truettner, The West As America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 (1991).

I. Picturing Landscape as Storytelling

We spoke in the last lecture about the many ways we can periodize landscape change as we convert a chronicle of events into narrative history: we develop a thematic focus, identify benchmarks and turning points, and develop a narratives by linking them together to create a coherent story. In this lecture, I'll model the telling of history by suggesting possible periods—what you might think of as chapters—for understanding the tradition of frontier landscape painting in the United States.

I want to take Frederick Jackson Turner's argument about the 1893 closing of the frontier, an argument based on Henry Gannett's maps from the 1890 census that we looked at extensively last lecture, and look for it not in census maps but in landscape paintings. The key argument for our lecture today is as follows: 19th-century painters worked within a grand narrative tradition, more or less summarized by Turner's classic frontier thesis, in which each individual landscape scene became an icon of environmental transformation and national progress. Last time we saw Turner anchoring his frontier narrative with Gannett's maps; today, we'll see how that same narrative—mythical, certainly, and powerful myth—expressed itself in the very different medium of painting.

An environmental historian looking at landscape paintings might wish to read those paintings as records of past environments, snapshots of human land use; in fact, though, they must also be read for their symbolic meanings as historical narratives and as future prophecies. It's these connections I want to explore, because they so well exemplify the theme of periodizing and narrating landscape history that I discussed in my last lecture.

Let me start with two images, the first of which is so famous that it has almost become a cliché:

*Emmanuel Leutze, "Westward the Course of Empire,"" 1861


The painting is a celebration of American westward migration across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. This is purely a mythic landscape: there's no place in the United States you can go to see a landscape like this one. We're watching fur traders and explorers and pioneers struggle to cross the Rocky Mountains, with a Daniel Boone figure in the middle cradling a Madonna, gesturing west towards California—which, in this painting, is mythic, devoid of details, ready for us to impose our own imaginings on it. California in this picture is a land of dreams.

*Thomas Cole, "View from Mt. Holyoke, or The Oxbow," 1836

Contrast Leutze's painting with Thomas Cole's "The Oxbow," superficially very different. This painting is all landscape backdrop, with no obvious human foreground to speak of. This painting seems to have greater realism: it depicts a place one can actually visit...and yet there is every bit as much symbolism in this canvas as in Leutze's.

This painting features a diagonal composition combining wilderness and pastoral. A sublime storm has just passed through wild, untamed non-human nature; the painting draws your eyes down from storm clouds to the foreground, where we see an artist and umbrella pointing us toward pastoral lowlands. This painting depicts the transformation of a natural landscape to a civilized landscape: the land itself is a document of national progress.

The painting reveals ambivalence: the oxbow is a question mark, echoed in the shape made by the circling birds. Where is America headed? Is the civilizing landscape a sign of progress? Cole wrote with real passion about his fear that American nature was being destroyed. He was more explicit about questioning progress in his earlier works, most notably the five-sequence series from the 1830s called "The Course of Empire": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Course_of_Empire These five canvases depicted the following stages of empire: The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State (Cole's ideal), The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and Desolation.

Thus we can look at "The Oxbow" not as a realist landscape, but as a mythic narrative not just of the past of America, but a prophecy for where America might go. Will it go the way of Rome, as depicted in the "The Course of Empire?" "The Oxbow" suggests an implicit narrative.

This discussion of Leutze and Cole models how one might read landscape paintings as historical documents. For the remainder of this lecture, I'm going to explore a series of chapters in the tradition of American landscape painting, which will reveal to us how 19th-century white Euroamericans thought about the frontier processes of landscape change that Frederick Jackson Turner would later mythologize. These chapters are as follows:

(1) Images of "First Encounters";

(2) Images of a Vanishing World and a "Vanishing Race";

(3) Romantic Return to Eden;

(4) Progress of the Pastoral;

(5) Land of Regrets.

II. Images of "First Encounters"

The earliest paintings of American landscape could be called records of a "first encounter," in which an artist tries to record for viewers the landscape as first seen through European eyes. We might think of these as "booster art," or "real estate art:" trying to tempt would-be European investors and migrants. John White's watercolors for Sir Walter Raleigh's colony of Roanoke in the 1580s is among earliest exampes of this genre: a vision of ecological abundance prophesies success for colonial enterprise: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_White_(colonist_and_artist)

There is a second cluster of "first encounter" images that concentrate less on promoting colonization than on reporting on various scientific aspects of the new lands that European explorers were visiting and artists were depicting. In general, such images are informed by particular scientific perspectives:

  • Linnaean taxonomy (naming and cataloguing all forms of life, as in George Dennis Ehret's painting of a magnolia and John James Audubon's Birds of America);
  • geology (depicting different landforms and geological features, as in James D. Hutton's drawing of Citadel Rock on the Upper Missouri River);
  • ethnography (depicting native peoples, their costumes, practices, and features, as in Louis Choris's "Coiffures de danse des habitans de la Californie" with its portraits of the headdresses of California native peoples).

In general, such artworks depict plants, animals, geological features, and peoples not as individuals but as types.

III. Images of a Vanishing World (and a "Vanishing Race")

By the early nineteenth century, Euroamerican artists self-consciously sought to preserve remnants of what they saw to be a vanishing world populated with native inhabitants. Their goal was to portray native peoples before they disappeared from history.

One of the best known such artists was George Catlin (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Catlin), who visited the native peoples of the Great Plains during the 1830s and spent much of the rest of his life selling paintings based on what he had seen. He self-consciously saw his efforts as recording a "vanishing race," as described in the following paragraph:

I have, for many years past, contemplated the noble races of red men who are now spread over these trackless forests and boundless prairies, melting away at the approach of civilization. Their rights invaded, their morals corrupted, their lands wrested from them, their customs changed, and therefore lost to the world; and they at last sunk into the earth, and the ploughshare turning the sod over their graves, and I have flown to their rescue‑-not of their lives or of their race (for they are "doomed" and must perish), but to the rescue of their looks and their modes, at which the acquisitive world may hurl their poison and every besom of destruction, and trample them down and crush them to death; yet, phoenix-like, they may rise from "the stain of a painter's palette," and live again upon canvass, and stand forth for centuries yet to come, the living monuments of a noble race.

A more highly skilled artist who was more wide-ranging in what he sought to depict was the Swiss Karl Bodmer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Bodmer), who accompanied Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Nuweid on an exploring expedition to Great Plains in 1832-33. Bodmer had an acute eye for detail, a rigorously disciplined brush, and an intellectual agenda derived from Alexander von Humboldt that was truly catholic in its interests. His goal was to create an encyclopedic record of geology, ethnography, taxonomy, all other science besides. The level of detail in Bodmer's watercolors in comparison with Catlin's paintings is quite striking. The wide-ranging spirit of Alexander von Humboldt is much in evidence in these images: a comprehensive catalog of all of creation.

For example: when we follow Bodmer into the interior of a Mandan lodge‑-a very small and confined landscape‑-we instantly recognize that we've entered a complex cultural universe in which every element is suffused with human meaning: Bodmer's Interior of Mandan Lodge

Still, Bodmer's paintings share with Catlin's a common failing of many images of the first encounter: the ethnographic impulse to record "pristine" or "unspoiled" culture encouraged these artists and their viewers to suppress evidence of ways Euroamerican encounters had already led Indians to change their ways of living. Although Catlin and Bodmer's painting show many clues that Indians had a long history of trade with Euroamericans, almost none of their paintings show cross-cultural encounter actually taking place. Euroamericans are almost always "outsiders" in these paintings, just beyond the picture's frame. The artists want us to believe that the native universe is still unchanged, and that they are recording it at the moment just before it enters history. The implicit message in many of these canvases is a story of progress but also of loss, the worry that with the civilizing of frontier land came the end of a dream. This, of course, was the myth built into Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis.

IV. Romantic Return to Eden

We can look to an exception to prove the rule: the paintings of Alfred Jacob Miller, who didn't remove Europeans and Euroamericans from the frame: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Jacob_Miller

*Alfred Jacob Miller, Sir William Drummond Stewart Meeting Indian Chief, c. 1839

Alfred Jacob Miler was hired in 1837 by Sir William Drummond Stewart, wealthy Scottish lord, to accompany him on journey to fur-trading sites on Great Plains and in Rocky Mountains. Stewart had been to these fur rendezvous sites before, but this time wanted to be able to take paintings of his travels back home with him to Scotland. In all of Miller's paintings—in contrast them to Bodmer's and Catlin's—he depicts not first encounter, but an already mingled world in which natives and Euroamericans revel in the pleasures of returning to Eden.

*Alfred Jacob Miller, Caravan en Route, 1837

Miller freely incorporates fur traders into his images, with little concern about giving a "pure" picture of pre-contact Indian life. The narrative here is about a return to the garden, not a fall from it. Miller offered a highly romanticized, almost openly sentimental depiction of Indian life, showing that it could be possible—he hoped—for a Euroamerican make an excursion to a land of romantic adventure in which the false trappings of civilization would drop away and the basic innocence and goodness of primitive humanity emerge once again. (In this, he provides a visual analogue for the romantic idea of a return to primitive nature that had been powerfully articulated in the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau.) The landscape of Miller's West is a wild utopia, in which the artist and his patron recapitulate one of the oldest myths of western civilization: Eden itself.

Miller reminds us that the underlying narrative of many if not most western landscape paintings is not mainly about Indians, but about Europe, America, and the meaning of what the intellectual historian Perry Miller called "Nature's Nation." Once artists move beyond the moment of first encounter‑-whether with newly discovered landscapes, species, or peoples‑-they begin to trace the story of European Americans moving to a new country and remaking it in their own image. Sometimes it is a story of progress, and sometimes of loss, but always it is about the projection of human desires onto a resisting but yielding land. The narrative begins not with the original inhabitants and the way of life they are about to lose, but rather with Euroamerican eyes gazing west toward an unseen horizon, as in the painting by Emmanuel Leutze with which this lecture began.

V. Progress of the Pastoral: Prophesies of a Transformed Land

In the later phases of such paintings, Euroamerican artists depicted not an escape into romantic wilderness, but rather the process of transforming and civilizing the landscape, "taming the wild."

For many Euroamerican migrants arriving through the middle of the 19th century, the goal was to extract from the landscape its natural abundance, not by purchasing goods from native inhabitants, but by working the land themselves‑-or by hiring such work. Sometimes they mined, sometimes they lumbered, but most often they farmed, particularly in the classic pastoral version of the frontier myth which appears in so much American art and literature. Here the narrative moment that painters chose to depict might be called "taming the wild" or "progress of the pastoral." If painters of the first encounter often located their images at the start of an implicit narrative about an aboriginal world at the moment just before its decline, then painters of pastoral progress situated themselves at an equally important turning point later on in the same narrative. For them, the portrayal of a transformed landscape implied the passing of a wilderness, the planting of a garden, the growth of a new civilization. The implicit narrative of such landscapes, in short, embodied nothing less than the fulfillment of a migrant's dream‑-that oldest of visions in which America was the land of journey's ending.

*John Mix Stanley, Oregon City on the Willamette River, 1850-52

In Stanley's "Oregon City," the forest has retreated, and a rectilinear town grid has replaced it. Icons of progress are everywhere: covered wagons, stores, workshops, sawmill, church, seeds of future city. Waterfall now looks like power site. In the foreground, Indians look outward at the viewer as witnesses to their own vanishing world. This is an endlessly recapitulated icon, akin to Cole's Oxbow: wilderness of left foreground giving way to pastoral civilization of valley. From now on, appearance of Indians in landscapes like this will be only as reminders of the world they have lost. More and more, representations of pastoral progress will omit them altogether. The painting in effect reifies the conquest of Indian peoples, offers them as witnesses to their own demise.

In so many of these paintings, we watch the Amerian wilderness being developed and civilized, Turner's story of a receding frontier. That's the story that was implicit in Cole's "The Oxbow," and it's strikingly on display in Andrew Melrose's "Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way - Near Council Bluffs, Iowa, 1867": http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/display_image.php?id=84720 In it, we see an oncoming locomotive representing the movement of civilization into the wilderness, with the emerging pastoral landscape of a pioneering frontier family on the other half of the canvas. The same diagonal line that separates the sublime and the pastoral in Cole's "Oxbow" likewise divides this canvas.

Finally, consider Mrs. Jonas W. [Margaretta] Brown's depictions "Mining in the Boise Basin in the Early [Eighteen-] Seventies" (http://people.virginia.edu/~mmw3v/west/4_225.htm). Although we may view the foregound of this canvas as a landscape ravaged by the hydraulic mining processes that are washing whole hillsides away, that is almost certainly not the spirit in which Brown painted her canvas or that her audience viewed it. They saw such transformations as progress and improvement--which is harder for us today to see or believe as wholeheartedly as they did. And this points to the final chapter in the story of frontier landscape painting that I'm trying to tell today.

VI. Land of Regrets: The World We Have Lost

This is to say: progress is not the end of the frontier story. The very ambivalence we feel about a painting like Mrs. Brown's suggests a counternarrative in which the things we sacrifice to progress are at least as valuable as the things we gain. Most of all, the frontier myth was about the glory of movement and change, of ordinary people making history by the mere act of living their ordinary lives. And therein lay the paradox of this story in paintings: if the story drew its deepest meaning from movement, then the end of the journey‑-when movement stopped‑-could take away the very thing that made the journey worth making in the first place. The frontier narrative was about settling a new land; it offered little wisdom about how best to live in that new land once the settling was done and the new land had become old.

That is why, despite all the enthusiasm and optimism that characterize American landscape paintings of the nineteenth century, we can already detect in many that undercurrent of regret about the passing of an earlier world. We see it in

ethnographic erasures (George Catlin's "Bird's-Eye View of the Mandan Village") https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c5/Catlin_mandan_village.jpg

in the sad faces of "witness" Indians (John Mix Stanley, "Oregon City on the Willamette River, 1850-52" )

and even in the depictions of unpeopled wilderness celebrating non-human places that seemed a part of the vanished past (Frederic Edwin Church, "Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860" ).

*Thomas Moran, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872

In the second half of the nineteenth century, wilderness paintings more and more follow Church in suppressing any sign of a human presence. They carry us backward not to a pre-frontier Indian landscape, but to a pre-human wilderness one, fresh in the new morning of God's creation. In so doing, they move us out of history, and into myth. In this willful erasure of Indians and whites alike, we see the historical invention of the depopulated sacred places that would emerge as the national parks and wilderness areas we know today. The apparently pre-human wilderness of these paintings is in fact a post-frontier landscape, a product of the very frontier process it seeks to erase, set at a narrative moment when at least some Americans had begun to wonder whether all parts of the nation should be destined for development. It is no accident that paintings like these became increasingly common just as Indians were losing control of their land. With their forced removal onto reservations, it began to be possible to visit western landscapes without observing the daily use Indians had once made of them. Then too, Indian removal made it easier to forget the threat of violence that had earlier characterized frontier areas for Indians and whites alike.

*Oscar Berninghaus, A Showery Day (Grand Canyon), 1915

These will become the icon of the tourist for the twentieth century. Here we see unmistakable representatives of a well-to-do leisure class in temporary retreat from their urban homes. As the frontier recedes, the wilderness ceases to be either an opportunity for progress or an occasion for terror. Instead, it becomes sublime scenery, a place of revery.

***Charles M. Russell, Salute of the Robe Trade, 1920

*Frederick Remington, Episode of the Buffalo Gun, 1908

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an explosion of retrospective frontier painting in the United States, with Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell being only the best known of the dozens of artists who lovingly depicted heroic scenes of cowboys and rough riders working to subdue the Wild West. But although these paintings obviously participate in the frontier narrative, endlessly recapitulating it for a modern audience, their stylized nostalgia clearly marks them as post-frontier works of art. They all look backward to a world and a way of life that have already been lost. Moreover, the changing landscape of America ceases to be the main subject of such artworks; the landscapes they record become mythically schematized, mere backdrops for the human heroes in the foreground. As records of environmental change and what Americans thought about it, they have little to offer.

So we've come to the end of the frontier journey: endless nostalgic depictions of heroic, mythic paintings of the world that is no more; and narratives of human improvement of landscapes; and then paintings depicting a settled land where the frontier is over. Whether that world is agricultural-pastoral or industrial, it is a civilized post-frontier world that is being painted and photographed.

*John Steuart Curry, Wisconsin Landscape, 1938-39

John Steuart Curry's magnificent Wisconsin Landscape (1938-39) suggests the continuing vigor of the pastoral genre, albeit without much sense that the work of environmental transformation goes on: this midwestern countryside seems well past the frontier, a fully settled land.

*John Kane, Monongahela River Valley, 1931

John Kane's equally powerful The Monongahela River Valley (1931) embraces an industrial landscape as enthusiastically as Curry does a pastoral one, and with much the same sense of an environmental transformation that is already complete.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the depopulated, sublime wilderness art of the late nineteenth-century romantics has continued unabated in wilderness photography, most notably that of Ansel Adams (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ansel_Adams). In Adams' work, the millions of tourists who visit the national parks are carefully expunged to produce images which conform to the myth of a prehuman wilderness, with the ironic effect of thereby encouraging still more millions to visit these unpeopled wonders for themselves. Despite their pre-frontier appearance, such images betray a profoundly post-frontier consciousness.

*Alexandre Hogue, Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1938

*Alexandre Hogue, The Crucified Land, 1939

The same can be said of Alexandre Hogue, whose Dust Bowl symbolism about the environmental damage of American settlement is almost too blatant. His "Mother Earth Laid Bare" (1938), for instance, discovers a nude female figure in the eroded gullies of an abandoned Great Plains farm. In front of this raped figure he places an all-too-phallic plow, thereby turning the traditional symbol of pastoral progress into a demonic instrument. In their very different ways, each of these artists finds frontier echoes in their work.

But most twentieth-century artists have simply ignored frontier symbolism in depicting their local landscapes. Painters have generally ceded the strict representation of wild nature to the camera, turning instead toward impressionist, expressionist, formalist, and regionalist versions of landscape art.

*Georgia O'Keefe, Red and Yellow Cliffs, 1940

Georgia O'Keefe's "Red and Yellow Cliffs" (1940), with its sensuous bands of color on a heavily eroded southwestern hillside, is a compelling a meditation on the form and power of landscape. But the story of these images is inscrutable. As with so many other twentieth-century landscapes, one cannot identify a single overarching narrative into which they fit, and they do not readily yield up any obvious insight into the human meaning of a particular place.

*Emmanuel Leutze, "Westward the Course of Empire,"" 1861

Such was not the case in 19th century: from Cole to Bierstadt to Russell, frontier narrative so compelling that few painters escaped its influence. Not only did artists record on canvas Americans' most dearly held beliefs about the meaning of national progress; they in fact discovered those meanings embedded right in the landscape itself. A newly discovered geological formation, a gathering of Indians and traders in a mountain valley, a stump in a cleared field, a steaming locomotive, a newly settled town, a quiet wilderness lake: each represented landscapes of change that were also chapters in the epic of a great nation. Story by no means all positive: loss and regret as well as vision and triumph, lament for lost world of frontier. (That story was of course all the more tragic for native peoples who had lost much of their homeland, a story I'll pick up in a lecture that lies ahead.)

But about the historical significance of that narrative there can be no doubt: it remains among the most important founding myths of the United States, and is inscribed virtually everywhere on the American landscape. Whether one climbs the crest of the Sierras to look down with Emmanuel Leutze on the golden promise of California...

*Thomas Cole, "View from Mt. Holyoke, or The Oxbow," 1836

.....or sits with Thomas Cole atop a mountain in Massachusetts to contemplate the boundary between sublime wilderness and pastoral civilization, one cannot help recognizing that for these earlier Americans the landscape itself was a compelling creation. It was at once their greatest achievement, and the truest record of their collective past. Every stroke of the brush, like every chop of the axe and every turn of the plow, recorded a history of human struggles and dreams that mingled with the very soil. The epic narrative that makes these paintings seem like so many chapters in a single great book is one we no longer share so easily, but the world we inhabit is its legacy, shaped as much by these paintings as by the axe and plow. Together, they forever transformed the American earth, making its story our own.