Visions of the American West

CHAPTER 4: Hard times in the American West

It’s no secret that life on the frontier in the early- and mid-nineteenth century was difficult. Landscapes transformed, families dispersed, and loved ones were lost. While William Gilbert Gaul’s The Land of the Free places such suffering at center stage, other works—like Worthington Whittredge’s Buffalo on the Platte River, takes a subtler tack, gently hinting at the looming threat of westward expansion. Luis Jiménez’s Border Crossing brings similar themes into the twentieth century, as the elegiac sculpture speaks to the challenges of modern immigration.

Cruzando El Rio Bravo [Border Crossing]

Luis Jiménez
El Paso, Texas, 1940 - 2006, Hondo, New Mexico

Cruzando El Rio Bravo [Border Crossing]
Painted fiberglass
320.04 cm x 101.6 cm x 129.54 cm (126 in. x 40 in. x 51 in.)
Gift of Jeanne and Michael Klein, 2013
2013.9

Totem-like in stature, "Border Crossing" is a fiberglass sculpture by Texas native Luis Jiménez. In this monumental work, Jiménez depicts a Mexican man carrying a woman and infant on his back across the Rio Grande River—Jiménez was inspired by his father and grandmother’s illegal immigration to the United States in the early 1920s. "Border Crossing" is a tribute the artist’s grandfather and to the determination of the thousands of immigrants who have traveled across the southwestern border in search of a better life. As Jiménez later described: “I had wanted to make a piece that was dealing with the issue of the illegal alien….People talked about aliens as if they landed from outer space, as if they weren’t really people. I wanted to put a face on them: I wanted to humanize them.” Born in El Paso in 1940, Jiménez began studying art as an undergraduate at The University of Texas at Austin and received his Bachelor’s degree in 1964.

The Land of the Free

William Gilbert Gaul
Jersey City, New Jersey, 1855 - 1919, New York City

The Land of the Free
Oil
94.6 cm x 80 cm (37 1/4 in. x 31 1/2 in.)
Gift of C.R. Smith, 1976
G1976.21.12

While depictions of Native American men standing alone in majestic landscapes are common in American painting of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, solitary renderings of women in such environments are rare. This Sioux woman is wrapped in a Navajo blanket and perched atop a craggy valley rendered in thick oil impasto. The Sioux often chose high places—mountain peaks, as here—to bury their dead, and women mourned alone. The work’s title borrows from the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” used by the U.S. military during this time before it became the national anthem in 1931. William Gilbert Gaul, familiar with tribal funerary traditions from his experiences with the Sioux, may have set this twilight scene at its “last gleaming” to evoke the destruction done by U.S. forces against Native American communities at the turn of the century.

Buffalo on the Platte River

Worthington Whittredge
near Springfield, Ohio, 1820 - 1910, Summit, New Jersey

Buffalo on the Platte River
Oil
49.2 cm x 71.8 cm (19 3/8 in. x 28 1/4 in.)
Gift of C.R. Smith, 1985
1985.81

Worthington Whittredge created this work after a survey expedition to the West. The plains landscape deeply affected the artist: “Whoever crossed the plains at that period…could hardly fail to be impressed with its vastness and silence.” This intimate painting depicts a herd of buffalo along the banks of Nebraska’s Platte River. Enabling a heightened sense of the vastness he had described, the artist kept the buffalo at a distance, a small, quiet presence. And yet, the ominous clouds could be taken as tacit symbols of the encroaching migration of white settlers to the region—a development that was accelerated by the First Transcontinental Railroad built along the Platte River. Just a decade after this work was painted, those traveling west by train would no longer witness Whittredge’s vision, as westward expansion and overhunting caused the near eradication of the American bison.

Image credit:
William Gilbert Gaul
The Land of the Free, circa 1900 (detail)
Oil on canvas
The Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
Gift of C.R. Smith, 1976

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