Picks and Pans Review: American Frontier Life

updated 06/15/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/15/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Introduction by Peter Hassrick

Cowboy-and-Indian movies used to be blamed for our romantic notions about the Old West, but the seeds for such ideas were planted almost a century before films became popular. The preface of this handsome picture book says, "Narrative painting was especially prevalent in the years 1830 to 1860, when much of the public perception of the West was formed, and the scenes of the familiar—of everyday life—helped the unfamiliar and exotic West become an integral part of America's concept of itself." Few of the works in the book, however, reflect anything like everyday life. George Caleb Bingham's mostly jolly work does describe life on the river and in small towns. George Catlin's paintings of Indians have a sketchy authenticity. But many of the artists in the book seem rarely to have glanced at real life. Arthur F. Tait portrays moments of violence: horsemen with smoking rifles and buffalo, hunters pursued by Indians, a dying warrior's last war whoop. Charles Wimar's paintings look like panels for the WPA Post Office murals that were to come 80 years later. Alfred Jacob Miller prettifies the people, and his landscapes look like theater backdrops. Only Charles Deas suggests the grim nightmares that must also have been a part of the Old West. In Deas' The Death Struggle, an Indian and a wild-eyed trapper, each on falling horses, clutch at each other; Prairie Fire has a young girl being rescued by a horseman in clouds of smoke and flaming grass. In addition to the introduction by Hassrick, director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., there are essays on the artists and their works by a panel of experts. It is fascinating to see how often these artists borrowed from each other and how popular printmakers of the day adapted the familiar subjects—how, in fact, the myths of the Old West were born. (Abbeville, $39.95)

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