Smithsonian American Art Museum The West as America



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Smithsonian American Art Museum
The West as America

A Guide for Teachers


CONTENTS

Introduction



Lesson 1: Heroes and Exploration

Lesson 2: Native Americans and Stereotypes

Lesson 3: Mining for Gold

Lesson 4: The Western Environment

Lesson 5: How History is Made-The View from the Artist's Studio

Glossary of Terms

Bibliography
To the Teacher

Westward expansion is one of the best-known episodes in American history. During the nineteenth century. many artists depicted the American West in a way that is still often treated as an objective account of na­tional expansion. The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920, an exhibition at the National Museum of American Art, argues that this art is not an objective account of history. Art is not necessarily history; seeing is not necessarily believing. The intention of the exhibition is not to criticize western art, but, on the contrary, to acknowl­edge the way the art of the West imaginatively invented its subjects instead of simply copying them.


The West as America is an exhibition about looking—about learning to interpret images to see how they crate meanings.
The West as America teacher's packet, designed to complement the exhibition, is intended for grades 10 through 12, but the lessons can be adapted to meet the needs of both elementary and middle school students. The lessons may be used as a group or independently, depending on how they relate to your syllabus.
The packet includes five lessons:

Heroes and Exploration

Native Americans and Stereotypes

Mining for Gold

The Western Environment

How History is Made: The View from the Artists Studio


The overall goals of the packet

To help students develop observational skills through the close examination of works of art. How precisely can a work of art be described? Now many details unnoticed at firsts can be spotted after a period of sustained observation?


To help you and your students develop the ability to interpret works of art. The emphasis is on being able to see how and why works of art create meaning.
To help you and your students see how and why contemporary images also create meanings—not only about the West but other topics as well. You and your students will be asked to apply your interpretive skills to images from our time.
Each lesson is divided into five distinct steps

1. What Do You See? Students describe a work of art as thoroughly and neutrally as they cans noting not only its content but its design as well.

2. What Does the Painting Tell You? Students discover the theme (or themes) of the work of art, a process that involves interpreting what they see—or put another way, of transforming the image from a literal to a symbolic one.

3. What the Painting Does Not Tell You. Students learn historical information that contradicts the work of art, showing how it does not necessarily tell the whole story.

4. Why Was It Painted Tins Way? Students discover outside factors that may have influenced the way the artist chose to paint the image.

5. Suggested Exercises. Students undertake various projects designed to improve their interpretive skills. Typically these projects involve the interpretation of contemporary images whose relevance is suggested by the historical material covered in class.


Teaching Hints

The lessons require that one or two works of art be displayed before the class. Students will need ample time to describe and interpret what they see, and you may find that it will be useful to show the works of art for as long as 15 to 20 minutes.


Class discussion should be free-flowing. You will find that it is one thing for an interpretation to unfold in the pages of a teacher's packet such as this one, but that it is another for students themselves to create interpretations in class. Students will devise interpretations that differ from those offered in the lessons. The interpretations in this packet are not meant ro provide a finalized set of meanings—a set of "right" answers— for the images under discussion, but rather to offer several possible meanings among many.
To encourage interpretation you might identify a key theme—these themes are listed in the lesson plans—and ask students how the painting in question expresses that theme.
You might also encourage students to see that paintings work by associating one item with another. Interpretation can be a matter of finding relationships between elements in a painting and then associating these elements with a symbolic meaning. The first three lessons include short lists called "associations" to help you see such meanings.
Introduce information where it will encourage class discussion (particularly in steps three and four), but otherwise allow students the pleasure of discovering new interpretations and meanings for themselves.
Lesson 1. Heroes and Exploration
Goals:

1. To show how nineteenth-century images defined territorial expansion as heroic.

2. To reveal how contemporary images can glorify or exalt their subject matter.


Peter Rothermel
Columbus before the Queen
1842
oil on canvas
62 3/8 x 50 in.

What Do You See?

Ask students to describe the painting as fully as possible.


Rothermel's painting shows a man gesturing to a map. At his feet are a globe, another map and several closed books, including one labeled “Marco Polo.” On the left, a woman in white looks at this man while clutching a jeweled necklace with a Christian cross. Two other men, both looking at the first, sit to the right of the woman. Two additional figures stand behind the man with the map. Not easily seen at upper right, a sculpture of a horn-blowing figure is placed atop a column. The painting includes other figures, for example a scribe seated near the middle of the composition. The scene takes place in a dark interior that is lighter on the right.
What Does the Painting Tell You?

Ask students who the figures in the painting might be; then suggest key themes that students can explore.


The figure with the globe and maps—emblems of exploration—is Columbus. How do we know what Columbus is doing? The globe placed on top of the map suggests that Columbus is arguing that the earth is round (like the globe) and not flat (like the map). The books suggest that the feats of earlier explorers such as Marco Polo will indeed be "closed books” beside the exploits of Columbus.
Judging by their expressions, the two men on the left side of the painting do not believe Columbus. One of these men is dressed regally: He is Ferdinand, king of Spain. The other man is perhaps a counselor. The woman in white is Queen Isabella. Her stare indicates that she is moved by Columbus's argu­ment. The jeweled cross around her neck recalls the legend that she sold her jewels to finance Columbus' s voyage.
Yet Isabella's cross-touching gesture contains another meaning. For her, Columbus’s voyage is a divine mission. Other images within the painting reinforce this theme. A glow of light appears behind Columbus, as if emanating from his body, making him into a kind of holy figure. Strong highlights of this light reflect off Columbus's head, Isabella's diadem, and the globe between them, suggesting a holy link between the two figures and the idea of a round world. In fact, the wooden strip arching over the globe suggests a "halo" over this round world. Set apart from the light, the disbelieving Ferdinand and his counselor are literally "in the dark" about Columbus's plans. Finally, the sculpture of the trumpet-blowing figure foreshadows the triumphant calls from atop the mast of Columbus's ships that land—the New World—has been sighted.
Key Themes

1. Columbus's voyage as divine mission touching gesture contains an-

2. The triumph of light (truth, Christianity) over darkness (superstition)
Associations

Gloom or Dark: King Ferdinand, his advisor, a flat world.

Light: Columbus, Isabella, a round world.
What the Painting Does Not Tell You

Share this information with your students.


Rothermel's painting presents a detailed account of Columbus as hero. Yet it is misleading in many ways. Although the painting may suggest that Isabella sold her jewels to finance his trip, in fact the money came from plunder the Spanish had seized during their wars in Africa. Further, Columbus's voyage was not undertaken for religious reasons—it was not a divine mission—but as a matter of economics. Navigation to the New World meant that the Spanish would be able to open lucrative new trade routes over which they would have control.
The painting also contains several anachronisms (errors in respect to dates or the order of historical events). The male figures (Columbus, for example) wear seventeenth-century costumes. The globe is really a nineteenth-century model.
Why Was It Painted This Way?

Discuss possible reasons with your students.


Rothermel made his painting in Philadelphia in 1842. At that time westward expansion was beginning in earnest. Most Americans perceived this exploration as a heroic, even divine quest. For this reason the past was transformed to reflect the values of the present. Colurnbus became a hero, the first pioneer, instead of a sailor attempting to increase the wealth and territory of Spain.

Emanucl Leutza (LOYT-sa)


Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way
1861
oil on canvas
33 1/4 x 43 34 in.
What Do You See?

Ask students to describe the painting as fully as possible.


Leutze's painting shows a group of people at the top or near the top of a mountain, from which they see a huge valley and, on the horizon, a sliver of water. The most prominent figure—the man in the coonskin cap—gestures toward the valley while a woman, perhaps his wife, clasps her hands in prayer. Other figures stare into the valley while still others, at lower left, chop down trees. More figures at lower right have not yet glimpsed the sight at the top of the mountain. At middle right, two men lower another figure into a grave (note the cross) while a woman weeps over the body. Finally, around the edge of the painting are depicted various figures and scenes, including a portrait of a man in each of the medallions in the lower corners; a large body of water stretching between the medallions; in the upper left corner three men looking at a star; at middle right, a man holding a compass and globe.
What Does the Painting Tell You?

Ask students who the figures might be; suggest key themes that students can explore.


The figures ascending and stopping on top of the mountain are pioneers. They are shown at a dramatic moment in their overland trek—the moment when the Pacific Ocean (the sliver of water in the distance) has first been spotted.
Leutze's painting contains two main themes. The first is human control over nature. We see it in the pioneers' literal ability to scale a mountain—to surmount a huge natural obstacle—as well as in the figures chopping down the trees. The painting does not claim that this human control has been easy. One figure is being lowered into his grave. Nearby the broken wagon wheel and skeleton of a large animal suggest that earlier pioneers did not make it to the promised land without loss. A figure in the foreground wears a blood-stained bandage around his head indicating that perhaps a fight with Native Americans has been part of the settlers' journey.

Leutze's second main theme is the "divine" or “holy” aspect of westward expansion. The cross in the background marks not only the dead man’s grave but the sanctity of the westward movement. Together with her child, the praying mother is a frontier Madonna. The golden sky lights up the valley of the promised land below. The number of people and things “pointing” to the valley and Pacific Ocean signifies their special importance. (In addition to the gesture of the coonskin-capped figure, note the pointing finger of the man at left. the pointing gun of the man resting against the rock under the capped figure's extended arm, and also the “pointing" trees at left.) Finally, various religious motifs in the painting's borders (the Three Kings at upper right, for example) reinforce the Christian theme.


Key Themes

1. Human control over nature. s been

2. Westward expansion as divine mission.
Associations

Left part of picture: light, rest, family/fertility (mother, father, child).

Lower right part of picture: darkness, toil, death.

What the Painting Does Not Tell You

Share this information with your students.
Leutze's painting depicts westward expansion as a difficult task leading to a heavenly reward represented by the fertile golden valley below. Yet actual pioneers made the overland trek, either by wagon or train, only to discover that the promised Promised Land at the end of their journey was a lonely, inhospitable place. In Six Years on the Border; or, Sketches of Frontier Life (1883), Mrs. J. B. Rideout describes how her family had left New England for the West because they "had heard of a village on the banks of a beautiful river, surrounded by a rich country fast filling up with intelligent people...." After the hazardous trip overland, the Rideouts arrived at their destination:
We reached the town of which we had read such glowing accounts before leaving the East...and as I stood in the village which had appeared to my imagination in so many different forms, feeling homesick and discouraged, I looked around and counted the buildings. One blacksmith's shop. one small store, one dwelling house and two little cabins....
Traveling an average of fifteen miles a day, the pioneers usually took between five and six months to reach Oregon or California. During the journey they faced skirmishes with Native Americans and diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever. Often trapped in the mountains by winter snows (instead of gloriously reaching their summits, as Leutze’s image shows, the pioneers often had to slaughter their mules and oxen for food

and proceed on foot. Leutze's painting includes a burial, a man with a bandaged head, and other references to the hardships the pioneers actually faced. Yet his image remains a glorifying account of westward migration.


Why Was It Painted This Way?

Discuss possible reasons with your students.


By casting westward expansion as a religious mission, Leutze ignored the more material reasons for migrating overland. Instead of a man looking to strike gold or to start over after his eastern farm had failed, Leutze's coonskin-capped figure is shown as a heroic explorer in the tradition of Daniel Boone, William Clark, Columbus, and even the biblical Three Kings.
Suggested Exercises
I. The Hero in Contemporary Culture

What makes these images of Columbus and the pioneer heroic? How do the artists make these figures the center of attention? Identify for your students some of the ways that Leutze’s painting glorifies its subject:

1. The pioneer is at the center of the X-shaped composition.

2. His arm and head appear dramatically against the sky, making him the focus of our attention.

3. He is placed at the apex of a triangular form, above most of his party.

4. He triumphantly extends his arm outward.


From a magazine or newspapers show an image from contemporary culture that glorifies its subject and ask students how this is achieved. Then, as a homework assignment, ask students to look through magazines and newspapers to find a heroic photograph of a contemporary figure or figures and write a brief analysis of how these images glorify or exalt their subject matter. This emphasis on how images make meaning will solidify students' interpretive skills.
II. Create a Heroic Portrait
As an alternative to written analysis, ask students to draw or create an artistic expression of heroism.
Lesson 2. Native Americans and Stereotypes
Goals:

l. To define the word "stereotype" and consider the powerful ability of stereotypes to shape opinion.

2. To reveal how nineteenth century painters stereotyped Native Americans as either subhuman savages or "noble red men."

3. To apply the concept of stereotypes by examining images of contemporary people


Theodor Kaufmann



Westward the Star of Empire

1867


oil on canvas

35 1/2 x 55 1/2 in.


What Do You See?

Ask students to describe the painting as fully as possible.


Kaufmann’s painting shows a group of Native Americans in the grass or brush at the right side ache train track. In the distance, a concentrated light is visible. The most prominent Native American figure is either pulling a section of track behind him or placing the section across the railroad bed. The horizontal orientation of his body is matched by that of the dark clouds in the sky. Meanwhile, the light in the distance is echoed by the light of the moon. On the left, another Native American who is barely visible moves away from the track to the left.
What Does the Painting Tell You?

Ask your students what is taking place; suggest a key theme that students can explore.


The Native Americans have removed sections of the railroad track. The advancing train (indicated by its headlight) will be derailed when it reaches the missing track.
The painting establishes several key contrasts between settlers and Native Ameri­cans.
The train is presumably constructed, driven, and ridden in by settlers. It represents the literal "light” of Western civilization. The Native Americans, on the other hand, virtually melt into the darkness alongside the tracks. In the relationship of the most prominent figure to the similarly horizontal clouds, Kaufmann's painting compares Native Americans to a "dark cloud on the horizon.”
The Native Americans are closely connected to the earth. They slither and skulk. They peep their heads out from the trackside brush like wild animals. The arms of the Native American holding the rail are explicitly snake-like, suggesting that he is literally something of a "snake in the grass." (This snakelike shape is even more emphatic when one follows just the line of white highlight as it proceeds from one of his hands to the other.) The train—the force of civilization—is by contrast aligned with the straight lines of the track and railroad ties.
Key Theme

The light of civilization versus the darkness, evil, and subhumanity of

“savages.”
Associations

Settlers: train, technology, light, straight lines, progress.

Native Americans: earth, animals, darkness/dark clouds, serpentine forms, disruption of progress.
What the Painting Does Not Tell You

Share this information with your students.
Kaufmann made his painting in 1867 when the construction of the first transcontinental railroad was well under way. (The railroad was completed in 1869.) As crews built the railroad, they did in fact face attacks from groups of Cheyenne and Sioux. In this sense Kaufmann's painting has a basis in real events.
Yet Kaufmann's painting polemically casts the goodness of Western civilization (progress and light) against the disruptive evil of the Native Americans (snakelike barbarians emerging from the darkness). The Native Americans are the villains, yet it was their ancestral land across which the railroad was built. In this sense it is the train itself, and not the Native Americans, that intrudes.
Why Was It Painted This Way?

Discuss possible reasons with your students.
As Americans moved westward, various Native American cultures contested their desire to march across and settle on the land. The decimation of these cultures was rationalized when artists such as Kaufmann represented Native Americans as subhuman brutes. Violence to Native Amerian cultures thus became morally defensible because it was not perceived as violence to other human beings. It was seen instead as the necessary eradication of a lower form of life that could disrupt, or "derail" the rightful "progress" of civilization.

Charles Bird King


Young Omahaw, War Eagle, Little Missouri and Pawnees
1822
oil on canvas

36 1/8 x 28 in.

What Do You See?

Ask your students to describe the painting as fully as possible.


King's painting represents five Native Americans from the waist up. The most prominent figure, second from the left, wears a fur robe over his left shoulder and extending down under his right arm. A spear points to his throat. He wears beads, as do the figures flanking him. He also wears a medal bearing the likeness of a white man.
What Does the Painting Tell You?

Ask your students what is taking place; suggest a key theme that students can explore.


When students see this painting after examining Westward the Star of Empire, they will be inclined to see it as a more positive representation of Native American cultures. The purpose of showing King's painting, however, is to reveal how ultimately it also stereotypes its subject, in this instance not as barbarian but as noble.
King's painting contrasts with Kaufmann 's in many important respects. Although we cannot see their whole bodies, we know that the five Native Americans are not slinking around but standing up. They are shown not emerging from the darkness but in an even light. They wear elaborate and carefully detailed clothing and jewelry, and War Eagle (the figure closest to the viewer) displays but does not threaten to use his two weapons. Around his neck War Eagle wars a Peace Medal bearing the likeness of James Monroe, fifth president of the United States. Such a medal would have been given to him by a white dignitary as a sign of cooperation between races. Only in the snake drawn on the temple of the Pawnee second from right is there a distinct relationship between the paintings of King and Kaufmann.
Yet how flattering really is King's portrait? The Native Americans have noticeably light (almost white) skin. Their features are in many respects like those of European settlers as well. (Note for example the figure at far right.) More specifically, King relates his group of Native Americans not only to whites in general but to a certain archetype: the ancient Roman. War Eagle and the others wear distinctly toga-like buffalo robes. The Pawnee second from right stands in direct profile, displaying what might be called his "Roman nose” for the viewer.
Key Themes

Native Americans as "noble savages" or as the ancient Romans of the nineteenth-century.
What the Painting Does Not Tell You

Share this information with your students.


King's portrait represents Native Americans as noble and powerful. Yet by 1821, when a delegation of Pawnee visited King's studio in Washington, D.C. and became the subject of this painting, actual Native American culture had been ruthlessly repressed by the national and various local authorities. The chief Tecumseh, for instance, had led an uprising that resulted in his death and the subjugation of his people.
King's painting contains hints that, no matter how powerful they may appear, the Native Americans are in fact under white control. Consider the following:

1.None of them looks at the viewer. We see them but they avert their eyes and thus do not confront the viewer eye-to-eye.

2. They are cramped or jammed within the picture, almost like beasts in a cage. (Remember how Kaufmann's painting linked Native Americans to wild animals.)

3. Although they are portrayed as a group or tribe of five, none of King’s figures looks at the others. They are separate beings. The beads around War Eagle's neck (and the other beads in the picture) tell us about the power of unity and organization: how separate things can come together to form a strong and valuable whole. King's five Indians, each staring in a slightly different direction, do not possess this kind of organizational unity.

4. The spear pointing at War Eagles throat none too subtly indicates the threat of violence and subjugation he must face.
Why Was It Painted This Way?

Discuss possible reasons with your students.


King and others developed the noble savage theme as a way of emphasizing what they perceived as the dignity of Indian cultures. Contrasted to European culture, which many intellectuals considered "over-civilized,” Indian cultures allegedly existed in a primitive and natural state, close to the earth and unaffected by the highly controlled and structured world of "civilization.” They offered an example to all those who would go "back to nature" to live simply, honorably, nobly.
Yet such a belief grossly simplified actual Indian cultures. The noble savage label was as damaging as the motifs of subhumanity in Kaufrnann 's painting, for it character­ized Indian cultures as simple. without sophistication, offering an appealing contrast to civilization but never “civilized” themselves. King's Indians may not slither in the grass but they are represented as literally “lower” or more primitive than those who are "civilized.”
This state of noble savagery did not reflect actual Indian cultures. Instead, as in King's painting, Indians were shown not as themselves but as an image of what American settlers could be, if unencumbered by the strictures of civilization.
Suggested Exercises
I. The Stereotype in Contemporary Culture: Discussion
Discuss the questions: What is a stereotype? How are stereotypes created? Why?

II. The Stereotype in Contemporary Culture: Activities


Using an image from contemporary culture, explain to students the various ways in which an image might stereotype its subject. Then, as a homework assignment, ask students to look through newspapers and magazines—or sources more closely related to the school itself such as yearbooks or the student newspaper—to find a photograph that they believe stereotypes a certain figure or figures. Then have them write a brief analysis of how the images stereotype their subject matter. Students' analyses may then be presented in class.
Lesson 3: Mining for Gold
Goals:

1. To see how images created an optimistic view of what was often a brutal and unprofitable business: the mining of gold.

2. To show, by contrasting works of art, that not all images idealize laborers in this way.

Charles Christian Nahl and Frederick A. Wenderoth



Miners in the Sierras

circa 1851-52

oil on canvas

54 1/4 x 67 in.


What Do You See?

Ask students to describe the painting as fully as possible.


Four figures, variously wearing red, white, or blue shirts, engage in different actions. One hacks at the earth with a pick-axe. Another (bearing an anchor tattoo on his right forearm) places dirt in a wooden receptacle. Another throws dirt into the receptacle. Another pauses from his work to take a drink of water from a bucket. Behind the figures

is a cabin with smoke rising from its chimney. Laundry hangs in front of the cabin. The laundry matches the red, white, and blue colors of the miners’ clothes. Wooden steps lead from the cabin down to the streambed. A rocky area overhangs the stream at right. Sunflowers are at both lower edges of the palming. It is a sunny day.


What Does the Painting Tell You?

Ask students what the figures are doing; then suggest a key theme that students can explore.


Miners in the Sierras represents four miners operating a mine: they have constructed a wooden receptacle into which they place their shovels of dirt; the water flowing through the receptacle washes away the lighter dirt but leaves deposits of gold trapped on the bottom.
The painting represents mining as a peaceful activity. The sun shines and sunflowers bloom: nature is benevolent and will yield its riches to those who work hard to uncover them. In providing wood for the fire in the cabins fireplace, as well as the water one miner drinks, the natural world nourishes those who would remove its gold. The painting's perfectly X-shaped composition suggests that the natural world is a fundamentally stable and organized place.
Mining itself is represented as a smooth, rhythmic process. The four miners proceed through four distinct steps of mining. The first chips away the earth with his pick-axe. The second loads the earth onto the placer. The third sifts for gold. The fourth pauses to drink water. To call this process a matter of distinct stages or “steps” is particularly appropriate here. The steps leading from the cabin to the stream are echoed in the "steps" (for instance that at far left) by which the strearn's water level it gradually lowered, and by the "steps" of the mining process itself. Everything about mining in Nahl and Wenderoth's painting is smooth and easy, as simple as the "step-by-step" walk from the cabin to the placer mine.
The miners are physically powerful. The anchor tattoo on one miner's forearm perhaps suggests that he is indeed "anchored" to the earth—that he cannot be moved from his claim.
The miner holding the bucket of water to his mouth requires considerable strength to do so. The shape and angle of the bucket exactly match the shape and angle of the rocky promontory on the right side of the painting. This relationship suggests that the powerful miner can indeed “lift mountains” in his quest for gold—and in fact he and his fellows have done, and are doing, exactly that in the action of the painting.
The conspicuous red. white, and blue colors of the miners' clothing suggest that they represent not only four people but a nation unified in its quest for gold.
Key Theme

Gold mining is a peaceful, profitable exercise.


What the Painting Does Not Tell You

Share this information with your students.


Despite Nahl and Wenderoth's benevolent portrayal, the actual process of gold mining was anything but pleasant—or profitable. Gold was first discovered at Sutter's Mill, near Sacramento, California, in January 1848. By 1850, approximately eighty thousand people had journeyed west to California in search of fortune, The first miners extracted the surface deposits relatively easily. Subsequently special equipment was needed to extract the deeper, less accessible deposits. Gold digging thus quickly became the province of large companies rather than individual miners such as the ones shown in Nahl and Wenderoth's painting.

Georg H. Johnson



Mining on the American River, Near Sacramento

circa 1851


A photograph of a mining operation near Sacramento, dating from the same year as Mining in the Sierras shows several sides to mining that Nahl and Wenderoth did not portray.
In the photograph, mining is far from the peaceful hands-on enterprise of a few isolated men; instead it involves dozens of workers and a variety of machinery.
The damage to the environment is more apparent in Johnson's photograph. The rocky foreground is most likely the uncovered riverbed (the dammed river is at upper left). In place of the barely noticeable diversion of the stream in Nahl and Wenderoth's painting. the photograph indicates the large scale on which the natural world could be altered and damaged by mining.
Even so, the photograph is (like the painting) a positive representation of mining. The work force is orderly and the operation is successful: the two figures at lower right hold between them a pan containing some of the mine's gold.

Unidentified Photographer



William McKnight

1851
For many miners digging for gold produced neither wealth nor happiness. William McKnight, who carne to California in 1851 to search for gold, wrote to his mother from a mining camp:


Los Angeles

July11, 1852


My Dear Mother
I write to you in great pain being unable to sit up for more than a few minutes at a time; this is the only letter I have written to St. Louis since I arrived here, I have always waited to get better but have grown worse every day....
July18, 1852
I am now five hundred miles away from my wife and not a person about me who would do anything without pay—The mail is about to close and I must bid Farewell perhaps forever. I can't say any more [...]
Farewell—God bless you is the prayer of your dying Son

William
McKnight, who died three weeks later at the age of thirty-five, was only one of many miners who succumbed to disease in the unsanitary mining camps. Still others never even made it to California. Going west around 1850 meant either going overland across the Great Plains, a largely unknown and inhospitable area at that time, sailing from the eastern United States all the way around Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America) and then back up to California, or sailing to Panama and making the treacherous trip across the malaria-infested jungle in order to resume the ocean voyage on the other side. (The anchor on the miner's arm in Nahl and Wenderoth's painting might well indicate that this man has come to California by sea.)


Although Nahl and Wenderoth's painting shows four white miners, in fact many of those who worked on the mines were Mexican, Chinese, or of African descent. This same point may be made about other kinds of western images as well. For example, many of the cowboys and cavalrymen in the West were black, but paintings of cowboys and cavalrymen rarely include anyone who is not white. If we are to believe the paintings of Nahl and Wenderoth and others, the nineteenth-century American West was a racially homogeneous place—everyone was white, except for Native Americans: in fact, the West's large population of minorities made it racially and culturally diverse.
An added irony to Miners in the Sierras: Nahl himself had sailed for California with the idea of striking it rich. He was tricked into purchasing a claim that contained virtually no gold. For six months he and his family survived by selling food to other miners. He then abandoned mining and began his career as a painter.
Why Was It Painted This Way?

Discuss possible reasons with your students.


Even though Nahl himself had experienced the hardships of a miner's life, he and Wenderoth portrayed gold digging as a noble activity. They did so in part to satisfy the demands of a wealthy man who commissioned the painting, August Heilbron of Sacramento. For prominent Californians like Heilbron, gold mining was a rich and vital part of the state's cultural identity. Such men wanted only favorable, Romantic images of mining such as the one Nahl and Wenderoth provided.
Suggested Exercises
I. Class Discussion:

Joseph Stella



Miners

circa 1908

charcoal

37 x 19 1/8 in.


We already know that Nahl and Wenderoth's painting is an idealization of mining. How does the above image—Joseph Stella's Miners—not idealize its subject, which is two coal miners from near Pittsburgh? Ask students how it contrasts with Miners in the Sierras.
In Stella's drawing:

1. The miners are old and fatigued. They have sunken eyes and furrowed brows. The lower lip of the left miner droops as if from exhaustion. The shape of the lip is matched by the droopy line of the other miner’s hat.

2. The miners are not unified as they were in Nahl and Wenderoth's painting. Instead they are shown as isolated beings, seemingly unaware of each other presence, much like the five Pawnee in Charles Bird King's Young Omahaw, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees.

3. Mining is linked not to brilliant sunlight but to pitch blackness.

4. The artist uses charcoal rather than colorful paints. The charcoal relates to the coal that miners extract from the earth and its dust appears to choke them, just as the coal dust would have.
To idealize or not to idealize? Which is more appropriate to the depiction of people at work today?
Arguments could be made both ways.
Nahl and Wenderoth's painting represents workers as powerful, even heroic people laboring together in a benevolent natural environment for their own financial benefit—the gold they mine is theirs.
Stella's drawing represents workers as exploited and tragic figures, beaten and exhausted, with no indication that what they will own or even want what they mine.
II. Idealization Versus “Realism”: Other Professions
Ask students to identify other jobs that can be idealized and to explain how and why these jobs are represented in such favorable ways. Contrast such idealized images with “realistic" images.
Lesson 4: The Western Environment
Goals:

1. To show how the pristine natural scenes we find in nineteenth-century landscape paintings do not always correspond to the actual appearance of the land at that time.



2. To contrast n
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