Lure of The West

Treasures from The Smithsonian American Art Museum

Welcome to a virtual tour of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's traveling exhibition "Lure of the West," a look at how artists have created our vision of the American West over the past two centuries.

"Lure of the West" begins soon after the Louisiana Purchase, which changed dramatically Americans' idea of the West. As they ventured beyond the Appalachian Mountains, explorers sent back dispatches about their discoveries and helped write a new chapter in America's story. Stirred by these words and by images of the pristine wilderness, many settlers turned westward. Stunning mountain landscapes by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran portray the "lure," while many other artists recorded the excitement of the gold rush, the railroads and westward migration.

The changing view of Native American culture can be seen through the eyes of George Catlin and Charles Bird King, Eanger Irving Couse and Olin Warner Levi. And by the 1890s, members of the Taos Society of Artists began to romanticize the rugged landscapes and the rich Hispanic cultures of the Southwest, which they valued as a place of primal beauty and spiritual values.

Note the optimism and sense of possibility that these artworks suggest with their boldness of composition, strong color and bright light.

Elizabeth Broun, Director, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Oscar Edmund Berninghaus
Red Pepper Time
about 1930
Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Gift of Arvin Gottlieb

Berninghaus once stated that "the painter must first see his picture as paint—as color—as form. He must see with an inner eye, then paint with feeling, not with seeing." In Red Pepper Time, the mountains rise dramatically behind the town of Lavacita, New Mexico, and the animated texture of the desert plateau becomes a tapestry of dark paint. The red of the newly harvested peppers, set against the pueblo's dull buff wall, rivets our attention. While such vividness is certainly an accurate evocation of the pepper's strong flavor, the painting's colorful contrasts also infuse an everyday scene with strong emotional content.


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