MORT KÜNSTLER PORTRAYS HIS VISION OF THE OLD WEST IN HIS LATEST COLLECTION OF ARTWORK.
BY ANN THOMPSON
THE DRAMATIC EVENTS that shaped the Wild West–and the extraordinary cast of characters who populated it–have long inspired artists and authors to depict that exciting time. In Images of the Old West (Park Lane Press, a division of Random House, Avenel, N.J.,1996, $40), artist Mort Künstler has collaborated with author Dee Brown to tell the epic story of the American West. Each of Künstler’s nearly 100 detailed paintings presents another dimension of Western life. Unlike many volumes on Western art, Künstler and Brown’s work tells the entire story of the West–from the earliest inhabitants to the close of the frontier.
Künstler, who lives and works in Oyster Bay, N.Y., is one of the most renowned historical artists in America. Although today he focuses almost exclusively on the Civil War, over the course of his career Künstler has depicted a wide range of historical events. He is well-known for the extensive research he conducts to ensure the historical accuracy of each work. The paintings collected in Images of the Old West represent the toil of 21Ž2 decades.
Accompanying these striking images is the text of Dee Brown, a recognized authority on the Old West. Brown, who now lives in Little Rock, Ark., is the author of the best-seller Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and more than 25 other works of nonfiction and fiction relating to frontier history. His crisp narrative in Images of the Old West provides the historical background for Künstler’s artwork.
The text and paintings are divided into 10 chapters–“The Land Lies Waiting,” “Mountain Men and Missionaries,” “The Era of Manifest Destiny,” “The Gold Rush and the Creation of the Old West,” “The Civil War in the West,” “Railroads West,” “Cowboys and Cattlemen,” “Outlaws and Lawmen,” “The Plains Indian Wars” and “Sunset for the Old West.” An appendix lists all the paintings that appear in the book, along with the title of the work, year painted, medium, size of the original painting, and current owner.
The first chapter, “The Land Lies Waiting,” reminds readers of the ancient peoples who inhabited the land thousands of years before white men set foot in the Western Hemisphere. Künstler’s Ancestors of the Paiute depicts Stone Age dwellers in what is now the Great Basin of the western United States, and Haida Bear Dance illustrates a Pacific Coast tribe that was far advanced in painting and wood carving.
In chapter 2, “Mountain Men and Missionaries,” Brown describes how attitudes in America began to change as explorers, trappers and missionaries pushed west. Künstler’s Man and His Mountain portrays one of those early trailblazers for whom the West represented unlimited potential. For other Americans, however, the West was a land of savages and fearful unknowns. Newspaper editor Horace Greeley severely criticized Presbyterian missionary Marcus Whitman and the thousands who followed him to Oregon in the 1840s, describing them as “foolhardy” and their venture as “palpable insanity.” A few years later, however, Greeley changed his mind and urged in an editorial, “Go West, young man.”
Young men went, and so did many others. Künstler’s Westward Ho! depicts a typical family’s westward trek to start a new life on the frontier. The paintings that follow offer a wide array of characters and events from Western history–ranging from moments of quiet reflection, as in the portrayal of pioneer woman Emily, to violent clashes, as in Custer’s Last Stand. Indians aim their arrows at charging buffalo in Splitting the Herd, while a cowboy Riding Point leads Longhorns on the dusty trail. Künstler captures many pivotal moments in Western history, including the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill and the linking of the westbound Union Pacific and the eastbound Central Pacific railroads at Promontory, Utah Territory. But he also remembers the details of everyday frontier life. In Prairie Kitchen, a pioneer woman tends the cookfire, and in Tomahawk Throwing Contest, trappers and Indians test their skills.
Künstler does not forget the ever-popular outlaw-vs.-lawman showdown. He depicts the Fighting Kid from El Dorado preparing to draw his Colt .45 and shows a lawman Bringing in the Prisoner. As Brown points out, a lawman could once have been a badman, and a bitter outlaw might have at one time tried to keep the peace. Early in their careers, Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp were sometimes on the shady side of the law.
This era of gunfighters and gold seekers, prairie schooners and painted Indian ponies, was fast drawing to a close, however. On April 22, 1889, an event signaled the end of the Old West–President Benjamin Harris opened land to settlement in what had been Indian Territory. Künstler’s Oklahoma Land Rush, April 22, 1889, depicts the ensuing mad dash to drive claim stakes into the ground once assigned to Indian tribes “forever.” Settlers now inhabited most of the country, and in 1890, the Bureau of Census reported that the frontier was officially closed. Mort Künstler and Dee Brown bring that frontier to life once more in Images of the Old West, taking readers on a visual journey through a nation-shaping era.