American Museum of Western Art

I often write about the art I see during my travels, but the reality is there is a lot to see right here in Denver.  A couple months ago I went with an art historian to The American Museum of Western Art. It was a treat and really a must see in Denver’s growing art scene.

The museum is the showcase of the Anschutz Collection, arguably the best private collection of western art in the world.  It packs, salon style, as many pieces as it possibly can into the 4-story Italianate building from the 19th century (The building itself is worth checking out and has a storied past – read  for more information.) There are more than 600 pieces covering works spanning 150 years of artists’ engagement with the West.

The museum is generally planned according to movements and schools of art and while not exactly in chronological order moving from the oldest works on the lower level and up to the most recent on the upper levels.  It is useful to think about these schools and movements and you progress through the museum – there is so much to look at, it helps to organize the experience and see the works in relation to what other artists were up to at any given time.  Docents typically lead you through the floors, but I am told visitors are free to wander.

The main groupings of works include:

The Expeditionary Artists (George Catlin, Seth Eastman, Alfred Jacob Miller, John Mix Stanley); these guys generally went along on expeditions and scouting adventures to record journeys though the west. Their paintings often showcase the interactions with various tribes and depict trappers as they developed the fur trade.

Hudson River and Rocky Mountain Schools ( Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Worthington Whittredge); these painters typically lived in New York City  and often are most known for their paintings of the Hudson River Valley and later, the Rocky Mountains. These landscapes are filled with light and convey a sense of splendor.

Narrative Artists (George DeForest, William De Leftwich Dodge);these guys were the basic story tellers and depicted what was actually happening as settlers took hold in the west.  They took inspiration from the Renaissance, focusing on playwrights and writers, and poets while telling stories of battles and the gold rush.

California Painters  (Charles Christian Nahl, George Henry Burgess, A.D.O. Browere); these guys came for the gold but went on to showcase early California, often celebrating its Spanish heritage.

Interpreters of the Old West (Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, Charles Schreyvogel); even as the West was quickly developing into a major hub of urbanization, the public embraced their depictions of heroic frontiersmen and the idealized landscapes that filled the pages of papers, magazines and dime-store novels.

Illustrators (NC Wyeth, Dean Cornwell, Herbert Dunton); these artists of the early 20th century were the favored illustrators for short stories, novels and magazines.  Because of the publications, theirs are the iconic images most recognized.

Taos and Santa Fe Schools (Ernest M. Hennings, Ernest Blumenschein, Walter Ufer); these guys were educated artists in search of subject matter. As they travelled west, they basically landed in northern New Mexico and stayed. They developed a style of Southwestern art that is immediately recognizable.

American Regionalist Painters (Thomas Hart Benton, John Stewart Curry) These guys painted America’s heartland in a pseudo-realistic style that gave emphasis to everyday life of small towns and farmlands.

New Deal Artists (Maynard Dixon, Victor Higgins, Frank Mechau,) In the 1930’s Federal programs including the Works Progress Administration and the Section of Painting and Sculpture employed artists to commission paintings for post offices, state capitols, and government buildings. Many of these paintings were murals that depicted the strength and resourcefulness of Americans and the bounty of the landscape.

Expressionists (Marsden Hartley, Birger Sandzén); these artists were modernists, they conveyed emotion through manipulations of color, surface, and form.

Cubism and Abstraction (John Marin, Georgia O’Keefe); it is at this point in the tour of the museum that I really began to notice how quickly styles of art were changing, not only in the West, but around the world. The museum speeds through different modernist styles.

The size of the museum belies the collection – it really is so extensive that you can go back to again and again and continue to see different things and learn more about the development of art of the West and how it relates to the history of our country. (

The-Silenced-War-Whoop - Charles Schreyvogel

The-Silenced-War-Whoop – Charles Schreyvogel

The-Last-Race-Mandan-O-kee-pa-Ceremony George Catlin

The-Last-Race-Mandan-O-kee-pa-Ceremony George Catlin

Death of Minnehaha - William de Leftwich Dodge

Death of Minnehaha – William de Leftwich Dodge

Sunrise In The Vineyard Kim Douglas Wiggins

Sunrise In The Vineyard Kim Douglas Wiggins

Consider Building an Art Collection

I like to go on home & garden tours to get inspiration and to see how my place measures up, and to see art (of course, since it’s what I do). There are the decorated homes – the ones where the artwork just matches each room so perfectly, the size and colors. Those certainly are beautiful homes. Some of the homes have an eclectic vibe which I guess I relate to because that is most often how I describe my own home. Then there are the homes where the owners have so much stuff: posters, paintings, photographs, odd farm-equipment sculptures, wind chimes, glass-eyed porcelain dolls in the guestroom, bric-a-brac.

Every once in a while, a home just makes so much sense – those are the ones where there is such obvious thought behind every decision. The artwork seems to take on a different purpose – each choice is made in the context of the others. Whether the homes have American folk art, impressionist paintings or black & white photography, those are the tours I really love.

The art collections that get me going are really focused; I love the idea that someone develops a set of ground rules and then uses those parameters to actually choose their art. If you want to take a more deliberate approach to getting artwork – try to at least consider it in terms of how it might work in your “collection”.  Most of us wind up finding something we like here and something we like there and then just kind of throw it all together, wondering why it doesn’t necessarily work. The result is that trove of abandoned treasures under the beds, in the closets, basements, attics, or out in the garage.

Of course, you could hire a consultant like me – but even if you don’t, give your choices some thought.  Whether you just discuss your ideas with someone or you chart it out or put it into a spreadsheet, try to establish some guidelines. If you can articulate a framework for the artwork you choose, you can begin to build a collection.

For more information on how I can help you acquire art and/or care for what you already have, see the about tab on my blog.  I’d love to help.