America's heroic West in the artist's eye

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American Frontier Life, Early Western Painting and Prints, by Ron Tyler, Carol Clark, Linda Ayres, Warder H. Cadbury, Herman J. Viola, Bernard Reilly Jr., introduction by Peter H. Hassrick. New York: Abbeville Press. 202 pp. $39.95. What is one to think of American Western genre painting of the mid-19th century?

Americans have always romanticized the Wild West. Recently a retired and more craggy Marshal Dillon returned once again to Dodge City to save Miss Kitty from a dastardly TV villain. John Wayne has become more than an ex-Southern Cal football player who knew how to go ``yup'' and ``shucks.'' Even now, he is memorialized on Wilshire Boulevard by an equestrian statue, a symbol of something purer, more heroic, than ourselves.

The artists depicted in this book were painting for a public equally in love with the concept of a natural wilderness populated by larger-than-life Indians, trappers, and mountain men. To eager collectors, they gave paintings and prints memorializing this romantic realm.

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The artists were a varied group. Some, like George Catlin and William Tyler Ranney, actually had experience in the West, reporting what they saw and felt. Others, such as Arthur F. Tait, an Englishman who never ventured west of West Hoboken, N.J., created their work using descriptions and art of others. Most would travel at least to the fringe of the West, then return to New York or Philadelphia to paint and exhibit in the populous centers. The exotic world they represented fascinated viewers of that time much as we are eager to see more of outer space.

The art is uneven in quality. Catlin was a poor artist, but his work is authentic. He lived with the Indians he painted. He was also a showman, taking his gallery as far afield as Europe.

This writer's favorite is George Caleb Bingham, whose quiet, moody canvases of river boatmen are truly haunting.

The background of the artists is as colorful as their work. Bingham lived in St. Louis and was very familiar with his subject. Tait was a British immigrant artist, accomplished in the painting of horses, and thus was naturally drawn to the Western painting of his friend William Ranney, even using some of Ranney's collection of props to help authenticate his painting. Charles Wimar was from Germany. Seth Eastman was a West Point graduate and a career Army officer who painted on the side. But they were all drawn to the Western genre as subject matter because of innate interest and to further careers given a boost by the exotic material.

But what is the value of this book filled with beautiful reproductions of the paintings of these artists and others? The scenes may, or may not, be authentic. The value, then, is not purely historical. The human spirit craves an existence beyond the humdrum. These artists gave their viewers a glimpse of life both simple and heroic. It's this fantasy that draws us to these images.

There is a group of artists still painting the West, with its vast landscapes, who are following the footsteps of Catlin, Bingham, and Ranney. It is a valid part of the American culture and deserves our fond affection.

Charles McVicker is assistant professor of art at Trenton State, Trenton, N.J.

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