How the West was Won … On Canvas
by Claudia Carbone
ABOUT 50 YEARS AGO, Colorado entrepreneur Phillip Anschutz began collecting western art. As the private collection grew in the warehouse of his corporate offices, so did his desire to share it with others and provide an educational resource for children. In 1997, the Anschutz Corporation acquired the historic Navarre Building in downtown Denver—a piece of western history in itself — and restored it to become the new home of the American Museum of Western Art, one of Denver’s premiere art galleries.
The exhibit of original artwork includes more than 300 paintings, drawings and sculptures from the early 19th Century through the age of industrialization and up to present time. Displayed in chronological order, the paintings time travel from American Indian territory of the Old West to the settlements of the New Frontier to the West as we know it today. While the West was expanding, the style and methods used by the artists depicting it was rapidly changing as well, and the exhibits on the gallery’s three floors illustrate this transformation.
“It’s the most important collection of western art in the country,” said Darlene Dueck, AMWA curator who has worked with the collection for 22 years. “It’s significant because it documents historical development of American art as it pertains to the West. It invokes painters who were involved with the West, who loved the West, and depicted it in their own God-given talent and style. They painted their very inner being. The stories told here are such beautiful examples of how they captured a moment in time that they considered important.”
The artists and their works
A moment in time, indeed. Artists of the day accompanied military, exploratory and fur trading expeditions of the early 1800’s and captured on canvas what they saw. For example, tribal ceremonies and customs of Native Americans were documented by George Catlin in his images of the Mandan people. Dramatic depictions of the Old West gave us famous works like The Last Shot by William Ranney and Long Jakes, The Rocky Mountain Man by Charles Deas. Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell and others interpreted the heroism and daring of the western frontier through amazing action paintings. A group of narrative artists illustrated western life with inspiration from the Renaissance and the Old Masters. The beautiful, large-scale landscape works of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran round out the large array of paintings on the second floor main gallery.
The third floor gallery displays paintings that once hung in the station of the Santa Fe Railroad, commissioned by the railway to lure passengers to travel west. Artists were members of the Taos Society of Artists, which flourished in Taos and Santa Fe from 1915-1927. They came to “The Land of Enchantment” to capture its pure light, expansive landscapes and lifestyles of the Native American, Hispanic and Anglo cultures that make up the southwest. Many artists in the west, such as Georgia O’Keeffe and John Marin, were influenced by the modernist movement of the early 20th Century. On this floor are examples of Impressionism and Expressionism, as well as Cubism and Abstraction. During this time, some artists like N. C. Wyeth became famous for illustrating short stories, magazine articles and novels about the Old West that still are intriguing today.
On the fourth floor, paintings are grouped into themes, such as the dangers of travel in the early west and still-life painting popular in the late 19th Century. In the dark days of the ‘30s, the U.S. Government aided artists through the Federal Arts Projects spawning New Deal Art that appealed to the masses. Farms, small towns and scenery were documented by Regionalists in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Finally, Abstract Expressionism is explored in the works of Emil Bisttram and others as well as Ralph Brownell McGrew’s contemporary renderings of the Navajos in New Mexico and Arizona.
In an impactful display, all the paintings—many in ornate frames—are hung salon style, close together, side-by-side and above one another from floor to ceiling, a Gilded Age technique in keeping with the building’s Victorian roots. “Many of the artists on view anticipated their art would be hung in this way,” said Dueck. “Visitors can step back in time and enjoy the paintings as they would have originally been displayed.”
Built in 1880, the four-story Victorian started out as the Brinker Collegiate Institute for young women and later morphed into the first coed learning center west of the Mississippi. In 1889, new owners turned it into Hotel Richelieu, only to gamble it away to Ed Chase and Vaso Chucovich. This duo started the bordello that made it famous, naming it after French King Henry of Navarre who had a reputation for living large. Stories abound about tunnels built between it and the Brown Palace Hotel, where clientele could pass in secret to their nightly “entertainment.” By 1946, Johnny Ott was running it as a respectable fine dining restaurant, which continued under several more ownerships until The Anschutz Corporation acquired the building and reopened it in 2010 as the American Museum of Western Art.
Claudia Carbone is an award-winning journalist born and raised in Denver. She remembers going to lunches at The Navarre with her father and his philanthropic organization, The King Bees.