Art about the American West, like all art, creates a feeling or impression about the subject and the artist’s response to it, rather than providing an accurate “picture” of what it was “really like”. Contemporary art is extremely useful in providing clues to the attitudes and values of the time, and can be useful in corroborating what is implicit in contemporaneous accounts.
By juxtaposing the work of George Catlin and Edward Curtis one can readily contrast not only the specific subject matter but also the broader picture. Catlin provides us with a tangible record of native American life, and his response to it, before the United States had established itself across the continent. Curtis depicts native American life at the turn of the century when the die had been cast. While Catlin draws out a noble but primitive image of a free life, and helps us to understand their relationship with their natural environment, Curtis helps to create an understanding of the hopelessness which accompanied the destruction of this way of life.
Artists such as Frederick Remington and Charles Russell help to explain why the West became a subject of adventure to which storytellers in various media were drawn. The conflict between the native Americans and the new Americans resulted in scenarios to tantalise the imagination, and Remington, for one, used it to fuel the excitement of the public. "(Russell) and Remington added the cowboy as an “epic hero” to the mythic west of the Leatherstocking tales." (William H Goetzmann & William N Goetzmann The West of the Imagination, 1986 page 238)
This was a public generally oblivious to any rights of those who were being usurped, who chose to view their “acquisition” of land as inevitable, and as John Gast’s picture clearly shows, they did not seriously question the legality or morality of it. “Progress” demanded that civilisation should sweep all before it so everything would improve.
But art was not just limited to pictures, (and sculptures like that of James Earle Fraser) but was taken to the people in a popular form of live entertainment, even before the advent of motion pictures and television. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show created a visual, exciting and stimulating atmosphere which built on the mythology which had already been created, helping to spread the impact of what was essentially an American experience, to a much wider audience.
The artistic intention of James Earle Fraser in “The End of the Trail” is clear and poignant, the emotions engendered by its symbolism are morose and unpleasant, the accuracy of which is corroborated by the vast work of Edward Curtis. It is not pessimistic for it is not looking forward. It is very much a broad overview of what happened, something which is factually supported by works by new Americans such as John Gast. It draws attention to what happened to the native Americans when they were supplanted and is an emotional response to it. There is a similarity of the general style employed by Fraser to that of Remington, the latter worked in the medium of sculpture and often used horses to produce movement in his art. The contrast to " The End of the Trail" is therefore striking.
The 18 feet high sculpture is in plaster, created by Fraser for San Francisco's 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It received a gold medal. Fraser hoped that it would be cast in bronze, and that it would be positioned on Presidio Point overlooking San Francisco Bay. However restrictions on the use of bronze during the First World War prevented its construction. The plaster sculpture was placed in Mooney Park, Visalia, California, where it remained from 1920 to 1968. Since 1968 it has had pride of place in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, which restored the corroded plaster to its original condition. Truly a magnificent work it creates a
feeling of ambivalence, for however compelling its artistic statement, it is a sickening reminder of the outcome of the culture clash of nineteenth century America and the price which was paid for imperialist expansion.