The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1995, Volume 41, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West.

By Jules David Prown, et al. New Haven: Yale University Press, Yale University Art Gallery, 1992. Notes. Illustrations. Index. 217 pages. $30.00 paper.

Reviewed by Kevin Mulroy of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, Los Angeles. Mulroy recently curated an exhibition entitled “Imaging the West,” accompanied by a scholarly symposium, that marked the opening of the museum’s new Research Center.

This handsomely illustrated anthology, containing informative essays by scholars of the American West, accompanied a traveling exhibition of the same title assembled for the Columbus quincentennial. The exhibition was shown at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art during 1992-93.

The stated goal of Discovered Lands is to examine the five hundred-year visual record that has accompanied the Euro-American exploration and settlement of North America. In his introduction, Jules David Prown raises a theme that the other contributors explore in depth: “The art of the West often purported to depict its subjects realistically, but perhaps it depicted more accurately the needs, values, and aspirations of its viewing audience” (xi).

Nancy K. Anderson explores the historiography of the relationship between “accuracy” and western art. The value of “ethnographic” representations came to be judged in terms of factual accuracy rather than artistic merit. Anderson argues for looking at western art for its aesthetic qualities. William Cronon develops the argument that we need to be aware of the multiple perspectives from which each work must be read before we can begin to understand its meaning. But if the ethnographic importance of western paintings is to be de-emphasized, future investigators will be forced to address the question: How good is the art?

Martha Sandweiss discusses the mass production, distribution, and consumption of western imagery in the nineteenth century. Through government documents and other publications, western prints were made available to a popular audience in “staggering” numbers. Though it is difficult to trace patterns of distribution and consumption, Sandweiss nevertheless concludes that the abundance of western prints probably “helped transform popular ideas” (128).

In her essay “The Absent Other,” Susan Shoelwer investigates the apparent lack of representation of women in western art, particularly in portrayals of mountain men. Shoelwer concludes that women were present, but that their roles in society were not addressed by the artists.

Brian Dippie argues that, ironically, the most distinctive feature of western art is its rejection of the one thing westering seemed to be about: change. The West in art came to a stop with the end of the frontier and instead became “suspended forever in the amber of nostalgia” (115). Howard Lamar, however, suggests that western art has continued to develop in new and interesting ways. He notes the emergence of women and ethnic artists and the rise of unheroic depictions. Lamar concludes that artists this century have interpreted the western landscape with more imagination and sensitivity than their earlier counterparts.

The contributors recognize the importance of the “groundbreaking and controversial” exhibition, “The West as America,” held at the National Museum of American Art in 1991, suggesting that its revisionist views will be sanctioned in the long term. Both “The West As America” and Discovered Lands provide useful insights and suggest avenues for further investigation. However, both also point to how new this field of study really is. As did the 1991 exhibitions, Discovered Lands displays a charming naïvety. Attempts to incorporate deconstructionism, gender analysis, and reception theory point to western art history’s growing maturity. However, recommending that western paintings should be viewed as “works of art — complex constructions whose value is not confined to reportage” (p. 29) and advancing the notion that “surely, the topic of gender in western American art invites further investigation” (p. 165) are commentaries on just how far the field still has to go.

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