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Scenes from American frontier paint picture of country’s past in ‘Window on the West’ exhibit

John James Audubon, American Bison or Buffalo, c. 1843, hand-colored lithograph. Collection of Arthur J. Phelan.
John James Audubon, American Bison or Buffalo, c. 1843, hand-colored lithograph. Collection of Arthur J. Phelan.

Scenes from the American West will be on full display this summer at the Palmer Museum of Art in a new exhibit, “Window on the West: Views from the American Frontier.” Every piece in the collection was created by 19th-century artists who experienced the West firsthand, meaning visitors can expect realistic depictions of early life on the frontier.

“There are just over 60 works in the present exhibition, including oil paintings, watercolors and a few drawings,” curator Joyce Robinson said. “All are from one private collection amassed by Arthur J. Phelan, a lifelong student of American history and avid art collector.”

The artists responsible for these depictions were some of the first settlers who ventured beyond the established western borders. In fact, according to Robinson, “The earliest works date back to the early 1840s, when the land west of the Mississippi was still largely uncharted and certainly not well known to citizens living in the East.”

The collection features a varied selection of artwork depicting everything from vast mountain ranges to adventurous cowboys, and the exhibit is organized into three distinct sections. The first section, “Natural Beauty, Natural Wonder,” focuses on colorful vistas and other breathtaking imagery designed to attract people to the then-unsettled land. These paintings were especially striking at the time because, according to Robinson, they featured “geological formations foreign to the native scenery of the East Coast.”

The second section, “Western Settlement and Development,” focuses on works that depict the communities and ways of life that were established by the first explorers in the West. Robinson said the art in this section “attempted to convince settlers that frontier life, while still exotic, offered luxuries and security comparable to what they were leaving behind.”

The final section of the exhibit, “Images and Icons,” is largely composed of pieces that show how settlers interacted with the American Indians in the West. Visitors will want to pay special attention to this section because, according to Robinson, it shows the origins of some of “the occupations and personalities that would endure in the iconography of the West.”

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