Horizons of the Sublime: The invention of the romantic west

by John L. Allen

(This article first appeared in the Journal of Historical Geography [Great Britain] 18:1 [1992] 27–40.)

During the first four decades of the nineteenth century, a romantic image of the American West was invented. Beginning as early as the expedition of Lewis and Clark, romantic myths began to be created about the West and from these myths an image of the West as a place of romance was gradually produced. Much of the invented tradition that developed from the early images of the West was based in American interpretations of the European Romantic tradition and grew out of the art and literature that surrounded the American fur trade of the Rocky Mountains. Two different themes of romantic art and literature flourished during the fur trade era: the pastoral elegaic and scientific exoticism. Elements of both these themes are found in the art of Alfred Jacob Miller, George Catlin, and Karl Bodmer whose landscapes and portraits of the 1830s portrayed the fur trade era in its heyday, although Miller is most clearly associated with pastoralism and Bodmer with scientific exoticism. Romanticism also is found in the literature of the fur trade, particularly that of Washington Irving. The artists and writers of the fur trade period were responsible for the invention of a view of the West that was perpetuated by later nineteenth century painters and authors.

The early nineteenth century artistic and literary representations of the American West constitute "an almost unmatched adventure in exploration and discovery", [1] and a classic example of the invention of a tradition—the tradition of the Romantic West. When the artists and writers of the 1830s first penetrated the vastnesses of the Plains and Rockies they unfolded what William Goetzmann has called "a romantic horizon," a natural stage that offered boundless potential for the American imagination, already stimulated by the European Age of Romance. European Romanticism, although it had many manifestations, was essentially a reaction against the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment; it was "an attempt to depart from the norms of rational analysis of the world." [2] Romanticism sought truth not in science but in vision and emotion; it conjured up images of an Arcadian past, before the Fall, when heroes of an Age of Innocence bestrode the earth; and it sought meaning in direct and personal confrontation with the natural world. Translated to an American environment, Romanticism took on slightly different meanings. The Romantic artists and writers who penetrated the American West did not need to seek meaning and truth in visions of an Arcadia of antiquity for the West itself was Arcadia, a land before the Fall, the virginal creation of God, filled with mythic heroes clad in feathered headdresses or buckskins and homespun. Although some scholars may have claimed otherwise, the early romantic artistic and literary impressions of the sublime horizons of the American West were neither derivative nor documentary. They did not depend upon European tradition but upon American experience and upon the invention of tradition; and as such they represented "one of the clearest examples of the confrontation of the collective romantic imagination with new experience in nature." [3] And they embodied a tradition in art and literature which would prevail throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.

Martyn Bowden has postulated a four-stage sequence in the invention of tradition, beginning with the formation of fuzzy and inchoate images of a region and continuing through the creation of myth, the acceptance of myth as reality, and, eventually, the "universalization" of the tradition as fact. [4] With reference to the Romantic tradition of the American West, the first coherent images which became myth and later tradition began, interestingly enough, in an official exploring expedition of the United States government, an expedition that was well grounded in the doctrine of Jeffersonian rationalism that typified the Age of Enlightenment. The expedition of Lewis and Clark to the Pacific and back in the opening years of the nineteenth century was, although a failure in its central objective of locating a water route to the Orient, a watershed in American exploration and images. It began as an enlightenment experience and ended as a romantic one; it marked the ending of one phase of western exploration—the consolidation and refinement of French and Spanish images of the American Northwest—and the beginning of another—the encounter of observers with the chimera of the West beyond the Mississippi, with the potential Eden through which ran shallow rivers from mountains of pure crystal across an endless ocean of prairie. [5] It is difficult to say at what point during the two and a half years of this first American encounter with the West that the transition from Enlightenment to Romantic observer was made or what point the first beginnings of a romantic tradition occurred. No artists accompanied Lewis and Clark and they served as their own chroniclers. But from their own record books may be obtained descriptions of what Lewis referred to as "seens of visionary enchantment", descriptions which are well within the romantic tradition. On May 31, 1805, the following appeared in Lewis's journal:

The hills and river Clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance .. . [and] at a distance are made to represent eligant ranges of lofty freestone buildings, having their parapets well stocked with statuary; collumns of various sculpture both grooved and plain, are also seen supporting long galleries in front of those buildings ... I should have thought that nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first began her work. [6]

Where the European romanticist was forced to rely upon the time-worn relics of an ancient civilization to evoke the imagery of a Golden Age, in the American West the hand of the Creator had provided a natural, New World counterpart. Yet try as he might to create or invent a romantic vision of the West, Lewis was still more a product of the Englightenment. His stock-in-trade, like that of his mentor Jefferson, was the rational norm of interpretation of the real world and both the visual images and the written descriptions of the West that came directly from the Lewis and Clark Expedition were black-and-white images that were rather stark in their simplicity. In the woodcut illustrative material which accompanied the first editions of the Lewis and Clark journals, for example, were no traces of an invented romantic tradition. But Lewis and Clark symbolized the pinnacle of Enlightenment exploration, with its insistence upon a rationalistic assessment of Nature, and their efforts at shaping an image of the West were inaugural in nature. They did not invent the tradition of the Romantic West. But aiding in the creation of romantic myth, by sowing the seeds of Romanticism which sprang from fertile soil prepared by the Enlightenment, they helped to shape the early stages of image formation for the later invention of the Romantic West and after Lewis and Clark, nearly all western images carried a heavy romantic flavour.

Indeed, even as the first reports of the Lewis and Clark Expedition were being prepared for publication, the leaders of the Corps of Discovery were being romanticized in art and literature; material from their reports, particularly that describing the inhabitants of the West—both human and animal—was being presented to the American public through the romantic lens of such painters as Titian Peale whose style and palette softened the hard edges of western reality to create landscapes and character studies that were cast through a haze of romantic interpretation. Both Peale and his contemporary, Samuel Seymour, accompanied the next major governmental expedition west—the Yellowstone expedition of Captain Stephen Long in 1820—and their views of the Plains and Rockies, although primarily repertorial, were the first on-the-spot artists' renderings of the West and offered foreshadowing of the flowering brilliance of romantic western art in the decade of the 1830s, a decade during which the American West would be portrayed in the vivid colours of romantic complexity. [7]

During the years between the Long Expedition and the explorations of John Charles Fremont in the early 1840s, these individuals active in the West during the heyday of the fur trade—entrepreneurs and adventurers, chroniclers and artists—located nearly all of the crucial landmarks of the West; some of them wrote descriptions of the landscapes through which they passed; still others sketched and painted the land and its inhabitants. While cartographers and geographers paid scant attention to the locational information so provided and the most accurate maps were still those that showed the West as blank space, the reception, in the American mind, of the literary and artistic impressions contributed during the period of the Rocky Mountains fur trade was a different matter. On an American mind well-prepared by the Romantic movement, these impressions burst with great vigour. Generally speaking, there were—within the general fund of fur trade lore—two types of source material for images of the West: the informal sources from the fur traders and trappers themselves, available to the public in newspaper articles, letters home, and conversations in the riverfront taverns of St. Louis and other American towns on the eastward verges of the West; and the formal sources from the artists, military explorers, and literary figures who, in their art, reports, novels, and "reminiscences," presented the public with most of what was widely "known" about the West. By and large, the informal sources dealt with the location of landmarks, with the distance from here to there, with where the waterholes could be found, and with the areas of good beaver—in short, with most of the practical information regarding the West of interest to those who would (or wished they could) apply that information for purposes of financial gain. This practical and informal lore tended to be available primarily in frontier locations rather than being disseminated widely throughout the nation. Those who wrote the geographies or drew the maps either did not have access to it or disregarded it. Those who painted the western landscapes or wrote about their western experiences did, for the most part, have access to this informal lore. But they utilized it sparingly, having chosen to penetrate the haze of rationality represented by the fur trappers' knowledge to glimpse the romantic visions that lay beyond. Thus were the sources for the images of the West that were available to most literate Americans the formal and highly romanticized artistic and literary sources. Among these sources, the works of three artists—Alfred Jacob Miller, George Catlin, and Karl Bodmer—and America's foremost man of letters—Washington Irving—were the most important, although the art and literature contributed by others was not without significance. From the paintings of the artists and the chronicles of travellers and adventurers. Americans shaped images that belonged to the two mainstream themes of romantic thought as derived from the salons of Paris on the one hand and from Humboldtean science on the other. These two themes, modified by the American experience and the tendency of Americans to invoke a romantic vision of the West, became the filters of elegaic pastoralism and scientific exoticism which served to colour the sources and screen their transmission to the accepting public. [8] As a result, romantic pastoralism and romantic science were both present in the images of the land itself, its plains and mountains and vast, empty spaces of sky and light—and in the images of the land's inhabitants—natives and white trappers and animals. From these images there came the consolidation of earlier mythical views of a Romanticized West and the invention of two co-existing Romantic traditions: pastoralism and scientific exoticism.

Inventing the Tradition of Romantic Pastoralism

Perhaps most representative of the filtering effects of the pastoral elegaic theme were the images derived from the work of a Baltimore artist, Alfred Jacob Miller, whose watercolours formed the basis for many magazine illustrations of the late 1830s. [9] Miller was born in Baltimore in 1810, studied under one of America's most famous artists, Thomas Sully, in that city in 1831–32. During 1833 and 1834 Miller studied his craft in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts; while in Europe he travelled to Rome and other major cities, visiting galleries and copying the works of the masters. On his return to Baltimore, his biographers assume he set himself up in a studio there although little is known of his life or work until 1837 when he moved to New Orleans. It was in this city that he met a Scottish laird, Sir William Drummond Stewart; Stewart was something of a veteran of western travels, having spent over a year wandering the Plains and Rockies with a fur trapper brigade a year or so earlier. Informing Miller that he was making preparations for another trip into the Rockies, Stewart invited the young artist to accompany him "to sketch the remarkable scenery & incidents of the journey." [10] With this invitation and Miller's acceptance of it, the romantic image of the American West was provided with one of its strongest and earliest sets of source materials and one of the key inventors of the romantic tradition of the West was launched upon his brilliant-but-short career.

Although he travelled widely in the West with Stewart and was a more than competent observer and recorder of the American fur trade during its heyday, many of Miller's works were less accurate than might have been expected. In comparison with other early artists, such as Catlin and Bodmer, Miller's art was more heavily influenced by his romantic prepossessions. This was particularly true in his presentations of the native peoples of the Plains and Rockies. More than many Americans of his time, Miller was encumbered with mythical baggage from the Enlightenment ideal of the noble savage; he evidenced a Rousseauian obsession with the human inhabitants of the West. Where much traditional American depiction of native peoples had focused on the perceived brutality and savagery of the frontier contact between Indian and white, Miller presented both white and Indian in the West as "nature's noblemen." This romantic view was typified by his highly stylized painting, Trapper Takes a Bride (Figure 1), in which an adoring Anglo trapper is shown gazing at a demure and thoroughly Europeanized Indian woman. The style is reminiscent of European romantic paintings of the same period and although the dress and costume of the "bride" is certainly and unmistakably Native American, the "bride" bears no ethnic or racial resemblance to an Indian woman. This was customary of much of Miller's work, which frequently focused on Indian women because to him they represented the idyllic side of Indian life. And his Indian braves, "especially those who are mounted, relate closely to classical sources and suggest Roman orators and antique and Renaissance equestrian monuments ... Miller recognized parallels between the Greek ideal and the American Indian and he even found the Indian a superior model." [11] Miller certainly did not share Catlin's missionary zeal regarding Indians; nor did he possess Karl Bodmer's skills of scientific observation and almost mathematical precision in rendering Indian life. But better than nearly any artist who depicted Indian life in the nineteenth century, Miller's representations of Indians expresses the spirit of the century's romantic preoccupation with the noble redmen of the farther West. Verbal descriptions of this noble savage ideal also occurred frequently in period writing of the pastoral elegaic variety. Stewart, Miller's employer and travelling companion, provided his own descriptions of the Indian in his romantic novel based on his western travels. In Altowan: Or, Incidents of Life and Adventure in the Rocky Mountains, Stewart described the nobility of the western tribes:

while of surpassing beauty, and of address at once graceful and proud, in no part of the world is self–possession a more general characteristic than among the wild Indians of these mountains; the nearest approach to which is in the cold and supercilious courtier of England, although the savage is far superior in manly dignity. [12]

Stewart also claimed that true nobility may be found in the mind of the wild warrior race of these Western mountains, fit to shine in comparison with the long lines of pedigree, which so often transmit to their descendants corrupt blood as well as degenerate habits. [13]

Writers such as Washington Irving and George Ruxton echoed this theme of the innate superiority of the western Indians, even (or particularly) when compared to whites: "The Indian in his native state," Irving wrote in Astoria, "before he has mingled much with white men, and acquired their sordid habits" is courteous and hospitable, "living a life of idle leisure broken by periods of hardship courageously and stoically endured." Irving even went a step further, predicting that the contact between perfidious whiteman and noble redman in the West would result in the formation of "new and mongrel races" which would exhibit all of the unfavourable characteristics of the white and few of the elevated traits of the red and would resemble "those great hordes of the north, `Gog and Magog with their bands', that haunted the gloomy imagination of the prophets." [14]

Yet it was clear from both Miller's art and from Irving's writings (among others) that the basest elements of white society which polluted the nobility of the Indian was derived not from those whites on the farthest frontier of the fur trade but from farmers and merchants of what Irving usually refers to as "civilization" in quotes. The life of the white trapper was not portrayed as being much different from that of the Indians with whom they shared the western wilderness. The romantic view of the hardy trapper had him pitted against natural forces and, in most cases, winning a life of freedom and ease, living for the moment in a state of pure innocence. Contemporary writers referred often to "the glorious independence of man in a savage state" and described frontiersmen, with rifle, blanket, and horse, ready at a moment's warning to rove the world, carrying with them all their worldly possessions and free from artificial wants. Such romantic characters not only possessed the great secret of personal freedom but embodied an invented tradition which, in retrospect, probably describes a past that never was. "The Mountaineers," as Irving referred to them, were a totally different class than the first probers of the eastern wilderness:

They move from place to place on horseback. The equestrian exercises, therefore, in which they are engaged, the nature of the countries they traverse, vast plains and mountains, pure and exhilarating in atmospheric qualities, seem to make them physically and mentally a more lively and mercurial race than the fur traders and trappers of former days, the self-vaunting 'men of the north.' A man who bestrides a horse must be essentially different from a man who cowers in a canoe. We find them, accordingly, hardy, lithe, vigorous, and active; extravagant in word, and thought, and deed; heedless of hardship; daring of danger; prodigal of the present, and thoughtless of the future . . . There is, perhaps, no class of men on the face of the earth . . . who lead a life of more continued exertion, peril, and excitement. [15]

Yet, for all its "peril and excitement," life—in its everyday cycle—on the Plains and in the mountains was often described by the pastoral writers in idyllic terms:

The hunters brought in quantities of meat, the voyageurs busied themselves about the fires, roasting and stewing the meat for present purposes or drying provisions for the journey; the pack horses, eased of their burthens, rolled in the grass, or grazed at large about the ample pastures; those of the party who had no call upon their services, indulged in the luxury of perfect relaxation, and the camp presented a picture of rude feasting and revelry, of mingled bustle and repose characteristic of a halt in fine hunting country. [16]

Even when the scenes shift from those of wilderness to those of human habitation—be they white or Indian—the pastoral element is retained. A glowing and romantic description of Fort Laramie on the Oregon/California Trail is presented by one author who describes the fort as a safe haven, nestled in a valley of pastoral gentleness:

fertile and interesting, bounded upon all sides by hills, many of which present to view the nodding forms of pines and cedars, that bescatter their surface,—while the river bottoms, at various points, are thickly studded with proud growths of cottonwood, ash, willow, and boxelder, thus affording this comfortable location with its needful supplies of timber and fuel. [17]

Anyone familiar with Francis Parkman's descriptions of Fort Laramie as a filthy place filled with inhabitants of sordid habits and behaviour, living out their lives in a harsh desert environment, should see in the pastoralist's writing a clear example of invented traditions clashing with one another—the pastoral scene of the romanticist and the desert of Parkman's Brahmins. To many of the pastoralists, even the lodges or "tipis" of the native inhabitants of the plains took on a gentle and romantic appearance:

An Indian lodge, in the summer, is admirably shaped and adapted to the pleasure of its inhabitants—by raising the lower extremities of the envelope and securing them at a proper elevation, a free passage of air is obtained, which greatly contributes to increase the merits of the delightful shade afforded by the superstructure. [18]

Even the great annual event of the fur trade, the rendezvous, was presented in the context of a pastoral scene, as a "trapper's holiday," with both whites and Indians ready for fun and frolic or, as one observer put it, "a saturnalia among the mountains."

The animals of Miller derivation, most particularly the grizzly bear and the buffalo, are sentimentalized and stylized, appearing in scenes of pastoral adventure befitting the character of the human inhabitants of the West. And Miller's western landscapes themselves, although fairly well depicted when shown in small-scale views or when the land serves only as a backdrop for a set of human or animal actors are often as obscured by romantic pastoralism as they are a clear depiction of the human and animal inhabitants of the West. This is particularly true when the landscape forms the primary theme for an illustration or a lengthy written description (Figure 2). Such pictures, both visual and verbal, were deemed scenes "worthy of the greatest masters of the art which Raphael and Angelo have rendered immortal." Witness this description of an Indian camp in the Wind River mountain of west–central Wyoming:

The locality of the encampment presented numerous and varied attractions. It seemed, indeed, like a concentration of beautiful lateral valleys, intersected by meandering watercourses, ridged by lofty ledges of precipitous rock, and hemmed in upon the west by vast piles of mountains climbing beyond the clouds ... at the foot of which a lake of several miles in circumference occupies the center of a basin-like valley, bounded in every direction by verdant hills, that smile upon the bright gem embosomed among them. [19]

It is a pastoral image and, unlike many other artists and writers who tended to view the western landscapes through romanticism's darker lenses of mingled awe and repulsion, it is clear that Miller saw the landscapes of the west as comfortable and comforting, filled with beauty and offering hope and promise.

Inventing the Tradition of Scientific Exoticism

Representative of the other romantic theme, that of scientific exoticism, were images derived from the art of George Catlin and Karl Bodmer. Both of these artists, like Miller, were active in the 1830s and based their depictions of the West on actual experience. While Catlin's landscape views were primitive and poorly coloured, they nevertheless adequately captured the feeling of spaciousness characteristic of the western environment. And Bodmer's landscapes, neither primitive nor poorly coloured, were nearly representational art, depicting with accuracy the terrain features of the upper Missouri valley and the Montana Rockies. But the romanticism inherent in both Catlin and Bodmer paintings and illustrations was more in their choice of subject than in their depiction; and it is in their portrayals of the native inhabitants of the West where both Catlin and Bodmer best combine their romantic visions of nature with a scientific and ethnological approach to subjects that were, for most Americans, highly exotic. Both men were conditioned by the romanticism of their day and both were captured by the incredible and mysterious exoticism of the Plains and Rocky Mountain tribes.

Catlin, in particular, devoted the bulk of his artistic career to a realistic and ethnologically accurate portrayal of the Indians. In this sense, Catlin was as important a shaper of American images of the West as any author or illustrator of his time and perhaps more important than any of his contemporaries as an inventor of the tradition of the Romantic West. Part of the reason for Catlin's importance as an inventor of tradition was that he "took his show on the road," exhibiting his painting and giving lectures on the idyllic life of the Plains and Rocky Mountain tribes throughout the settled States. He was without question the best-known artist of his day; he may well have been the best showman as well, anticipating the romanticizing efforts of people like Buffalo Bill Cody, Frederick Remington, and Charles Russell later in the nineteenth century. Derivatives of Catlin's work appeared in many contemporary journals and periodicals, provided the stylistic bases for illustrations in the western "romances" coming into vogue in the 1830s, and became the primary western iconographic images of the period through imitation in the Currier (later Currier and Ives) prints distributed in large numbers. During the period in which the first romantic traditions of the West were invented, the decade of the 1830s, Catlin's work was restricted primarily to portrayals of Indian life. He did not reach the Rockies until the 1850s (although he claimed otherwise). [20] Catlin was a Pennsylvanian, trained for the law at the famous law school of Tappan Reeves in Litchfield, Connecticut. His art training was received informally in Philadelphia in the mid-1820s and, like Miller, he spent some time as a student of Thomas Sully. His primary western work was done in the years 1832–33 when he travelled up the Missouri for two thousand miles on the maiden voyage of the American Fur Company's steamboat, the Yellowstone. On his way upriver, Catlin painted surreal panoramas of the Missouri valley and his views of the western landscape provided, for many Americans, an effective counterpoint to Major Stephen Long's descriptions of the Great American Desert. Catlin's West (Figure 3) was made of green, enamelled hills and prairies, a "brilliantly colored Eden, peopled with noble warriors who harkened back to the days of ancient Greece, or the pastoral visions of the Aeneid." [21] This view of the West as a contemporary vision of the Golden Age appeared not only in Catlin's art but in his writings, particularly those in which he, like Miller and so many others, described the western landscape as ruins of a great civilization:

one continued appearance—of some ancient and boundless city in ruins—ramparts, terraces, domes, towers, citadels and castles may be seen,—cupolas, and magnificent porticoes—shedding a glory over the solitude of this wild and pictured country. [22]

He also, like some other early observers of the Great Plains environment, recognized the potential of the area as a vast highway to the farther West:

The whole of this immense tract of country is hard and smooth, almost without stone or gravel, and coated with a green turf of grass of three or four inches only in height. Over this the wheels of a carriage would run as easily, for hundreds of miles, as they could on a Mc Adamized road, and its graceful gradations would in all parts, admit of a horse to gallop, with ease to himself and his rider. The full extent and true character of these vast prairies are but imperfectly understood by the world yet; who will agree with me that they are a subject truly sublime, for contemplation, when I assure them that "a coach and four" might be driven with ease—over unceasing fields of green from the Falls of St. Anthony to—the mouth of the Yellowstone—thence—to the Gulf of Mexico. [23]

But Catlin's major role was as a shaper of the exotic images of the western tribes, Indians which he viewed as far removed from the "poor, degraded, and humble specimens" which can be seen in areas adjacent to white society. [24] It is primarily as a depicter of the exotic and, to him, Elysian, life of the western Indians that George Catlin made his impact upon American images of the West.

Although less well known by name than Catlin, Karl Bodmer's work was of arguably equal significance as a source of American romantic images of the West, largely because of the widespread use of Bodmer's art as illustrations. Perhaps more than any other artist depicting western themes in the first half of the nineteenth century, Bodmer's work was used as illustrative material in a wide range of applications, from newspapers to travel literature to romantic novels. [25] William Goetzmann, perhaps the foremost scholar of the West in the Age of Romance, has called Bodmer's work "a matchless picture of the American frontier—a collective portrait that was equaled by no other eyewitness artist before the coming of photography." [26] Bodmer was a Swiss artist, European-trained, whose travels in the West were, like those of Miller, as an illustrator for a wealthy traveller. Bodmer's patron was the Prince Maximilian of Wied, a scientist-aristocrat who had studied with Johann Friedreich Blumenbach, the same great German scientist who had trained Alexander von Humbold. Maximilian was in St. Louis in 1833 where he met Stewart, Miller's patron, and was offered passage across the Plains with the American Fur Company brigade with whom Stewart was travelling. Being interested more in science than adventure, Maximilian declined the offer, cautiously deciding to travel up the Missouri on the American Fur Company steamboat. In this fashion Maximilian and Bodmer travelled as far as the Great Falls of the Missouri, Bodmer making sketches all the way. From this journey came the historically and ethnographically accurate pictures of Indian life and remarkable landscape depictions which, as renditions of the American West in the 1830s are, quite simply, without parallel and still serve as "the artistic embodiment of an age of emergent romanticism". [27] Both Bodmer and Maximilian were romanticists to whom the West symbolized the world at the dawn of time and the native inhabitants "the people of the first man"—the children of Adam, living in a wilderness untouched and untainted by European or American civilization. The machine had not yet invaded the Garden. Bodmer's illustrations accompanied the publication of Maximilian's Travels in the Interior, [28] making his view of the West available to many Americans after the publication of the American edition of that work in 1843.

Like Catlin, Bodmer was a faithful preserver of Indian life and custom. He represented Indian ritual and costume, conflict, and daily life with an artistic ability simply not possessed by Catlin. But the true significance of Bodmer as a source of images of the romantically exotic was, again, in his choice of subjects. Many of his paintings and lithographs show evidence of the presence of native peoples in a landscape without actually showing the people themselves. From darkly mysterious images of Indian burial grounds, to the curious and wonderful Indian trailmarkers and directional guides, to the visual evidence of the Indians' exotic relationships with a spirit world, Bodmer demonstrated his fascination for the scientifically exotic (Figure 4). It was a fascination that was echoed in the pages of the literary works of Irving and Maximilian and other romantic writers of the period. These literary figures were as enchanted with the native association with the supernatural as were the artists; they described the "medicine rings [in which] the natives commune with their spiritual guides, those who will lead them to the land of souls where are the towns of free and generous spirits where those who have pleased the Master of life while living enjoy after death all manner of delights" and often saw in native religious practices the evidences of some past connection with the Old World's Golden Age, a dominant theme of American romantic exoticism. [29] Similarly, Bodmer's depictions of western wildlife carried overtones of exoticism often matched by verbal descriptions in the literary works which described the buffalo and grizzly in almost supernatural terms: "The grizzly bear" one author wrote, "stalks forth at pleasure, in his majesty and strength, lord of the wild solitudes in which he dwells, and none dares oppose him". [30] And finally, Bodmer's landscapes—although sometimes frankly pastoral are much more frequently dramatic and exotic particularly in their representation of the fantastic and fabulous shapes present in the western landscape (Figure 5). Both Miller and Catlin had likened the western landscapes to the ruins of the Old World Golden Age and had seen in those landscapes, the evidence of a history that was derived from Nature rather than Art. But neither of these artists were as explicit in their ruins analogue as were Bodmer and the writers who patterned their descriptions after his paintings:

It seemed as if Nature, in mere sportiveness, had thought to excel the noblest works of art, and rear up a mimic city as the grand metropolis of her empire. There stood the representations of palaces, with their domes and balustrades; churches, with their spires and cupolas; and streets, with their gigantic dwellings, stores, workshops, and warehouses. And there, also, were parks, pleasure-grounds, and public squares, all so admirably defined by the agency of the winds and rains of ages, that the traveller might readily imagine himself to have arrived within the precincts of the deserted city of some peopleless country, whose splendor and magnificence once more than vied with the far famed Palmyra of the desert, even in its best days. [31]

Such were the romantic images of the West in 1840—blends of the pastoral and dramatically exotic, sometimes comforting in their familiarity yet, at the same time, full of spendid mystery. The West was sometimes Garden:

... a beautiful champaign country, of flowery plains and sloping uplands, diversified by groves and clumps of trees, and long screens of woodland; the whole wearing the aspect of complete, and even ornamental cultivation, instead of native wilderness. [32]

And the West Was Sometimes Desert:

It is a land where no man permanently abides; for, in certain seasons of the year there is no food either for the hunter or his steed. The herbage is parched and withered: the brooks and streams are dried up; the buffalo, the elk and the deer have wandered to distant parts, keeping within the verge of expiring verdure, and leaving behind them a vast uninhabited solitude, seamed by ravines, the beds of former torrents, but now serving only to tantalize and increase the thirst of the traveller. [33]

But the West was, whether Garden or Desert, forever a land of romance, an horizon of the sublime, a tale from the Arabian Nights:

Far away . . . over the vast plains, and up the steep sides of the lofty mountains, the snow lay spread in dazzling whiteness: and whenever the sun emerged in the morning above the giant peaks, or burst forth from among clouds in his midday course, mountain and dell, glazed rock and frosted tree, glowed and sparkled with surpassing lustre. The tall pines seemed sprinkled with a silver dust, and the willows, studded with minute icicles reflecting the prismatic rays, brought to mind the fairy trees conjured up by the caliph's storyteller, to adorn his vale of diamonds! [34]

As Americans began to move into and across the West in the 1840s the character of the images would begin to change. But they would, for the most part, retain the romantic flavour which characterized them in the opening years of the Great Migrations and the invented tradition became institutionalized or universalized as a part of traditional American interpretations of the West. Other artists would continue the tradition of Western art invented by Miller and Catlin and Bodmer and, in the works of landscapists Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, can be seen the influence of their predecessors. Later nineteenth century artists like Frederic Remington and Charles Russell would attempt to recreate the West as it had been (or it was believed to have been) during the first encounters of the 1830s. Similarly, writers like Owen Wister would build upon the romantic tradition begun by Washington Irving and William Stewart. One of the tests of an invented tradition is said to be its persistence. [35] If this is so, then the efforts of the romanticists of the 1830s were successful; the invented tradition is still with us today and even the efforts of revisionist historians to "show the west as it really was" [36] have had relatively little effect on the overall continuing acceptance of the romantic tradition among the American public. Indeed, one of America's most popular contemporary novelists (who, not so incidentally, writes primarily about the West) has referred to the revisionists' attempts to "re-invent" the West as a "failure of imagination." [37] The romance of the frontier is still America's creation myth and the words of George Catlin are just as true now as they were when he wrote them in 1840:

the Far West;—the country whose fascination spread a charm over the mind almost dangerous to civilized pursuits. Few people even know the true definition of the term "West"; and where is its location?—Phantom–like it flies before us as we travel, and on our way is continually gilded, before us, as we approach the setting sun. [38]


I am profoundly indebted to the writings and ideas of William H. Goetzmann of the University of Texas–Austin, whose work on the Romantic era of Western exploration and art has been the source of many of my own ideas. I am also heavily indebted to Peter Hassrick, Director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming, for his work on Western art and artists. The magnificent Whitney Gallery of Western Art at the BBHC has provided inspiration for this article.

  • Department of Geography
  • The University of Connecticut
  • Storrs, Connecticut 06269-2148, USA
  • Figure 1. Alfred Jacob Miller, Trapper Takes a Bride. Courtesy of Joslyn Art Museum, The InterNorth Art Foundation.
  • Figure 2. Alfred Jacob Miller, Trappers Saluting the Rocky Mountains. Courtesy of Whitney Gallery of Western Art, Buffalo Bill Historical Center.
  • Figure 3. George Catlin, Fort Pierre. Courtesy of Whitney Gallery of Western Art, Buffalo Bill Historical Center.
  • Figure 4. Karl Bodmer, Skull Medicine Near Mih-Tutta-Hang-Kusch. Courtesy of Joslyn Art Museum, The Enron Art Foundation.
  • Figure 5. Karl Bodmer, The White Castles on the Missouri. Courtesy of Joslyn Art Museum, The Enron Art Foundation.
1. W. H. Goetzmann, The West as romantic horizon (Omaha, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1981), 12. (back)
2. Ibid., 12. (back)
3. Ibid., 12. (back)
4. See M. J. Bowden's article, "The Invention of American Tradition" The Journal of Historical Geography [Great Britain] 18:1 (1992): 3–26. (back)
5. W. H. Goetzmann, The West of the imagination (New York, NY: Norton, 1986), xi. (back)
6. B. DeVoto, The journals of Lewis and Clark (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1953), 124–5. (back)
7. P. Trenton and P. H. Hassrick, The Rocky Mountains. a vision for artists in the nineteenth century (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983), 20–30. (back)
8. Goetzmann, The West as romantic horizon, 12. Goetzmann recognizes several "programmed attitudes" as characteristic of the romantic observers: the pastoral–elegaic, the sublime, the melodramatic and theatrical, the epic heroic, and the nostalgic. Goetzmann also recognizes that some observers combined a romantic view with an approach that was scientific. I have chosen to call this approach "scientific exoticism". See M. Peckham. "The dilemma of a century: the fourth stages of Romanticism" in The Triumph of Romanticism, Collected Essays (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 36–57. (back)
9. Many of Miller's works have been reproduced in books dealing with Western art during the last quarter–century. One of the best treatments of Miller as an artist, along with a discussion of the discovery of much of the artist's portfolio, may be found in B. DeVoto's, Across the wide Missouri (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1947) which contains an account by M. R. Porter of the discovery of the Miller collection. (back)
10. M. C. Ross. The West of Alfred Jacob Miller (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968, 2nd ed.), xvii. (back)
11. R. Tyler ed., Alfred Jacob Miller: artist on the Oregon Trail (Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum, 1982), 56. (back)
12. Sir W. D. Stewart. Altowan: or incidents of life and adventure in the Rocky mountains (New York, NY: Harper & Bros., 1846), 45. (back)
13. Ibid., 247. (back)
14. W. Irving. Astoria, or anecdotes of an enterprize beyond the Rocky Mountains (Philadelphia, PA: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard, 1836), 151–52. (back)
15. W. Irving. The adventures of Captain Bonneville (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961; ed., E. W. Todd), 10–11. (back)
16. R. B. Sage, Rocky Mountain life, an account of his adventures in the West from 1841 to 1844 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, reprint of the 1858 edition), 37. (back)
17. Sage, op. cit., 96. (back)
18. Ibid., 97. (back)
19. P. B. St. John, The trapper's bride: a tale of the Rocky Mountains (London: John Mortimer, 1845), 53–55. (back)
20. Hassrick and Trenholm, op. cit., 280. (back)
21. Goetzmann, The West of the imagination, 19. (back)
22. G. Catlin, Letters and notes on the manner, customs, and condition of the North American Indians (London: The author, 1841), 19. (back)
23. Ibid., 12. (back)
24. Ibid., 60. (back)
25. D. C. Hunt and M. Gallagher, Karl Bodmer's America (Omaha, NE: Joslyn Art Museum, 1984), 360–72. (back)
26. Hunt and Gallagher, op. cit., (from Goetzmann's introduction, "The man who stopped to paint America"), 3. (back)
27. Hunt and Gallagher, op. cit., 15. (back)
28. Maximilian, Alexander Prince of Wied. Travels in the interior of North America (Vols. XXII–XXIV of Early Western Travels, edited by R. G. Thwaites. (Cleveland, OH: Arthur H. Clark, 1906). (back)
29. cf. Sage, op. cit., 182–85. (back)
30. Ibid., 156. (back)
31. Ibid., 91. (back)
32. W. Irving, A tour on the prairies (Philadelphia, PA: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1835), 36. (back)
33. Irving, Astoria, 151. (back)
34. Irving, The adventures of Captain Bonneville, 120. (back)
35. See the article by M. J. Bowden "The Invention of American Tradition" The Journal of Historical Geography [Great Britain] 18:1 (1992) 3–26, for an expansion of the notion of the persistence of invented tradition. (back)
36. See M. Horn, How the West was really won, U.S. News & World Report 108 (May 21, 1990): 56–65. (back)
37. L. McMurty, How the West was won or lost. The New Republic 203 (October 22, 1990): 32–38. (back)
38. Catlin, Letters and Notes, 62. (back)

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