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Lure of the West

Wonders of the American West revisited via canvas and clay

PROVO, Utah — Thousands living on America's east coast and in Europe during the 19th century were given their first glimpse of the American West through the brushwork of artists named Catlin, Bierstadt or perhaps Moran.

Their paintings were fresh and ambitious — reflections of the landscapes and cultures depicted on canvas. Those first images of the untamed West left viewers both fascinated and intrigued.

The spirit from those first paintings of the American West is again evoked in a recently opened exhibit at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. "Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" is a collection of 64 paintings and sculptures from the 1820's through the 1940's by U.S. artists seeking to capture the rich, sometimes gritty experience of the American West.

Thousands of visitors will be traveling to Utah in the coming weeks for the 2002 Winter Games. Many will wander into the museum and experience the wonders of the West.

"This spectacular exhibition will provide visitors with an unsurpassed opportunity to explore how the Western expanses of the United States of America was pictured and understood in the 19th and early 20th centuries," said museum director Campbell Gray. "It provides a wonderful background to the exciting events of 2002."

"Lure of the West" is one of eight exhibitions from the Smithsonian American Art Museum touring the nation with a goal to stimulate interest in American art among new audiences and art lovers alike.

Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said the artwork included in "Lure of the West" is among the museum's finest. She admits she'd rather see the pieces displayed in their home galleries in Washington, D.C. But the historic museum is in the midst of an extensive, three-year renovation.

"It seemed quite an opportunity to be able to share the very best of the best with the American people much more broadly," Dr. Broun said.

An entire gallery of "Lure of the West" is devoted to portraits and scenes of Plains Indian life by George Catlin, an artist who followed the path of explorers Lewis and Clark in the 1830s. His images of buffalo hunts and other Indian activities served as "reporters" to their eastern audiences — delivering fresh stories of a people and culture that could not yet be told on television or film.

"In a way, what we're getting is an experience that [Catlin] experienced — an encounter, if you wish, with the people of the plains in the 1830s," said George Gurney, SAAM's deputy chief curator.

Some elements of the exhibit — such as Albert Bierstadt's 10-foot wide masterpiece "Among the Sierra Nevada, California" — focus on the majesty and optimism of the West. Others suggest the sad impact the westward movement had on native cultures. Eanger I. Couse's portrait "Elk-Foot of Taos", for example, depicts an Indian appearing both noble and, perhaps, regretful.

"He evokes in us a sense of ambivalence," Dr. Broun said.

LDS and local visitors to "Lure of the West" will recognize some personal connections. One painting by Thomas Moran depicts the beauty of Kanab Canyon in southern Utah, while another by John Mix Stanley was based on research done alongside the Mormon Battalion as it moved through the U.S. Southwest.

The exhibit covers a relatively long historic period — yet the depicted mixture of emotions, challenges, excitement and passion would have been experienced by the Mormon pioneers through their treacherous trek across the West.

"I would imagine that the descendents of the pioneers here would look into their family journals and find deep contact with these works," Dr. Gray said.

"Lure of the West," which is presented in part by The Principal Financial Group, will remain on campus through May 18, 2002. There is no admission fee. Museum hours are Monday and Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m.


E-mail: jswensen@desnews.com