Famous American Western Artists: Remington, Russell, Catlin, Bierstadt, and Moran
Famous Artists of the American Frontier
In this article, I will discuss some of the most well-known Western artists of the 19th century. These artists were celebrated not only for their beautiful works, but also for their pioneering work in documenting the history, mythology, and ethnography of the American West.
The artists of this period came from many walks of life. Some of them lived on the Western frontier and made their artistic fortunes featuring the mythic aspects of the American West. On the other hand, some of these artists never lived in the West, and a few weren't even American.
The following discussion is my attempt to highlight some of the most well-known Western artists from the 19th century. You will probably recognize most of these names. This is not an attempt to select the artists who are necessarily the best or whose works fetch the highest prices. I do hope that by featuring the works of these artists, you will have an enjoyable virtual visit! Please take a moment to add to the comments section, below, to share which artist's work you liked the best.
Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926)
Charles Marion Russell was an important and prolific Western artist. His works can be found in over 50 museums in the United States, as well as around the world.
Russell was adept in several media. He painted in oils and gouache (a type of watercolor), and he also sculpted. You will find that you can view many copies of his popular cast-bronze sculptures in different venues, because bronzes are made by pouring molten metal into a mold made from the original piece of artwork. Bronze pieces are usually made in limited quantities at a foundry. The numbered copies of these bronzes are very collectible, with the first editions, usually numbered on the sculpture, like a print. Most Western art museums contain at least a few works by this influential artist.
Russell's representational style included cowboys, Native Americans, and landscapes inspired by visits to national parks in California, Arizona, and Colorado. The color palettes are muted, but realistic, and his paintings and sculptures are dominated by a sense of movement and action. He depicted a mythic American West.
Russell's paintings are more valuable than his sculptures, simply because their numbers are fewer. However, his sculpture is probably what he is best known for, again, because it is so prolific.
Selected museums with Russell's artwork.
- Amon G. Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
- Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming
- C.M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, Montana
- Desert Caballeros Western Museum, Wickenburg, Arizona
- Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana
- National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
- The White House, Washington D.C.
George Catlin (1796-1872)
George Catlin was most well known for his comprehensive ethnographic portraits of 48 distinct Native American tribal groups. He traveled for 8 years and produced over 500 portraits depicting Native Americans in full regalia, capturing their dress and hairstyles for posterity before the Civil War and before the Mormon emigraion to Utah. At that time, traveling through Native American lands was dangerous, but Catlin traveled among tribal groups with greater safety than most other settlers of European descent. This was because the Native Americans valued Catlin's record of their tribal societies. Catlin's work is considered equally important for its historical/ethnographic content, as well as for its finely executed realistic depictions of hundreds of subjects.
Catlin was a painter who worked in oils and watercolor, and he specialized in printmaking. His work is well preserved and prolific due to the existence of these prints.
Selected museums with Catlin's artwork:
- National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
- Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh/Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
- Desert Caballeros Western Museum, Wickenburg, Arizona
- Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado
- The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
- The Grace Museum, Abilene, Texas
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
Albert Bierstadt was a German-American painter best known for his romantic landscapes. He was a prolific artist and was very financially successful during his own life. One of his commissioned paintings brought him $25,000 over 150 years ago. That's a lot of money now, but it was an astronomical sum for a painter in the 19th century!
Bierstadt's popularity was well justified. His beautiful landscapes manipulate light in a technique called "luminism." His paintings of beautiful places like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Californian landscapes, etc., often use strong contrasts of light and darkness in a technique called "chiaroscuro," which is an Italian term usually applied in art history to portrait paintings. Personally, I think the technique fits Bierstadt's European influences. Bierstadt used this effect to create romance and grandeur in his landscapes. His work fueled the imagination of many Americans who settled in the West, and his paintings helped Easterners appreciate the lands that later became a part of the U.S. National Park system.
Bierstadt belonged to a group of painters known as the Hudson River School, and he worked in many media, including oils, pastels, watercolors, gouache, charcoal, and inks. His prolific output, popularity, and status—not only during his time but also today—mean that his works now appear in over 100 museums across the United States. Bierstadt is one of my personal favorite artists. His paintings of Yosemite are inspirational.
Selected museums with Bierstadt's artwork:
Thomas Moran (1837-1926)
Thomas Moran was an English-born landscape painter who immortalized his Western landscapes like Albert Bierdstadt. Moran emigrated to America with his family when his father's job as a loom operator became obsolete during the height of the Industrial Revolution. Thomas's brother Edward was also a painter.
Moran's signature style of painting with intense shades of color was especially effective in capturing the awesome grandeur and drama of Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks. These parks form the backbone of his landscape work. His landscapes often depict steep and dramatic mountains, rock formations, and natural wonders—often with dark clouds. His paintings carry a high sense of drama. Look at Moran's paintings closely and then compare them to Bierstadt's. Can you see the stylistically different treatment of similar subjects?
Moran made many trips to the national parks of the Western United States, and in later years, his status as the artist of the Grand Canyon was immortalized by the Burlington and Northern Railroad in its advertisements.
Moran was adept in many artistic media, including gouache, watercolor, oils, printmaking, engraving, lithography, and watercolor.
Moran's work is featured in over 100 museums in the United States.
Frederick Remington (1861-1909)
Born relatively late in the 19th century, Frederick Remington always knew he wanted to be an artist. At age 15, he attended a military academy in New York State. According to his biographers, Remington moved out West to prove his merit as an artist to his fiancee's father. He bought a saloon in Kansas and was bamboozled, but he eventually established a flourishing career as a fine artist, journalist, illustrator, and even war correspondent. He also got to marry his sweetheart!
Remington was both a painter and a sculptor. His subjects often included cavalry officers, Native Americans, and horses. His cast bronze sculptures were reproduced at forges and sold in multiple copies in a series, similar to the idea of print making. He made all of his bronzes during the last 10 years of his life, which ended at the untimely age of 48 due to health complications.
Remington was fascinated by what he called the "Old West," and he traveled in the West during his adult life collecting subject material. However, I am always struck by the almost manicured portrait of an artist wearing a stiff, Eastern suit. Ironically, this man defined the art of the West and still commands a grand seat as one of the big granddaddy's of Western art, yet he remained more an observer than a participant in the actual Western lifestyle, preferring to do most of his work in New York City.
Frederick Remington's artwork is featured in over 80 museums across the United States.