Online Feature: How the West Was Scripted

Camila Navarrette

Galloping horses topped by dark figures rapidly approach a lone cowboy in the distance. He waits, his weathered face expressing a stoic heroism, fortified by a swelling soundtrack and a loaded six-shooter.

This is the kind of imagery that stamped upon the American imagination certain ideas of “the West”—the place where pioneers pushed toward purple mountains to attain status in a growing nation.

This summer, two downtown Denver museums, mere blocks from each other, host exhibits that look at Western legends—and some untold stories, too—from different but complimentary perspectives.

At History Colorado Center (HCC), Backstory: Western American Art in Context pairs 50 works from the Denver Art Museum (DAM) with historical artifacts from HCC’s vaults. Among other things, the pairings document the connections between the Civil War, western expansion that followed soon after, and the people it displaced.

Meanwhile, DAM showcases Western artists, from 19th century painter Albert Bierstadt to movie director Quentin Tarantino, in The Western: An Epic in Art and Film. Western painters like Bierstadt “seemed to anticipate (Western) cinema,” said Mary Dailey Desmarais, Ph.D., co-curator of The Western and curator of International Modern Art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art.

Among the displays in Backstory at HCC is a telescope used by Lewis and Clark, on loan from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, that first allowed the explorers to look deeply into the West. Their trip report would open the door to further exploration of the West.

Inclusion of Western artists like Bierstadt’s Emigrants Crossing the Plains examine how popular notions of the West collided with the people that inhabited the landscape. Backstory dedicates a room to the Taos Society of Artists to publicize the Hispanic voices often ignored in Western art.


Frederic S. Remington (1861-1909); A Dash for the Timber; 1889; Oil on canvas;Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; 1961.381. Courtesy of Denver Art Museum

As you walk across Broadway in downtown Denver and through DAM’s The Western, “you’re going through time,” said Thomas Brent Smith, director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art and co-curator of the DAM exhibit. “The West seems to go to the forefront of the American consciousness, American imagination, [and] American entertainment.”

Shrouded in movie-theater darkness, visitors encounter movie clips and quotes of famous movie directors such as John Ford, who counted Western painters such as Frederic Remington among his greatest influences in early films starring John Wayne as a lone hero. After World War II and the onset of the Vietnam War, Westerns began to reflect Cold War anxiety. An underlying connection to Abstract Expressionist in a film such as The Man Show Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which Ford shot in black-and-white rather than color, and countercultural movements as explored in films such as the 1968 Peter Fonda classic Easy Rider, display the Western’s malleable relationship with American identity. The exhibit includes Fonda’s Captain America Harley.

“In many ways, the Western is a mirror in which America sees itself,” Smith said. “Whatever our issues are in American culture, we go to the Western.”


AAA Connection

Backstory: Western American Art in Context is open at the History Colorado Center until Feb. 11, 2018. The exhibition is included in the price of general admission. AAA members save $2 off general admission tickets at the door or online using promo code 93149060.

The Western: An Epic in Art and Film will run at the Denver Art Museum until Sept. 10, 2017. Tickets are not included in general admission and can be purchased online. The Western is co-organized by the DAM and Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). AAA members save $1 off adult, non-museum member, general admission tickets at the door.

Convenient parking is available in the Cultural Center Complex Garage, 65 W. 12th Ave.

Camila Navarrette is a freelance writer in Denver.