The cowboy stars who ride our dreams -- Lash LaRue and Hopalong, Tom Mix and the Cisco Kid -- have been given too much credit for our vision of the West. Mooing steers and neighing steeds, stage coaches and six-guns, were already shining -- in still pictures, not moving ones -- before Hollywood was born.
Our 19th-century artists were just as easily enticed by silver-studded saddles, by guns and bows and arrows, as children are today. They were just as moved by heroes. Heart-stopping renditions of innocent white maidens being rescued from the Indians were already being painted, by Asher B. Durand, in 1846; leathery lone rangers were already ranging, camp fires were burning and buffalo were roaming, in American oil paintings a century ago. The painters of America began to dream the wild West long before they saw it.
The debts we owe those artists, and the debts they owed to Europe, are one subject of the Western show now on exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It's called "The American West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection." The images on view, the landscapes and the genre scenes, the oils and the bronzes, are more than half-familiar. And many are antique. Together they suggest how much of the mythic West -- its purple mountain majesties, its innocence and piety, its noble rearing steeds -- is rooted not in Texas but in the old traditions of European art.
Twenty of the works displayed -- Bierstadt's "The Last of the Buffalo," Stanley's "The Disputed Shot," Remington's "Coming Through the Rye" and others as well-known -- are owned by the museum. The remaining 35 have been lent by Philip F. Anschutz, 40, a Denver businessman-collector in love with Western history and with Western art.
Anschutz owns some splendid things, for instance Thomas Moran's "Children of the Mountains." But he has also purchased such amusing clunkers as Albertus del Orient Browere's near-cartoony "goldminers." Anschutz seems the sort of man who buys his art by subject. He is not alone. a
On today's art market, almost any picture of a cowboy or an Indian is bound to cost a lot. The Corcoran's Edward Nygren, who put this show together, points out, quite correctly, that the booming Western market parallels in many ways the just-as-specialized demand for English sporting art. The two have much in common. Both recall the good old days, the outdoor life and manliness. And both are full of horses.
The horse, in art, has long suggested gentlemanly chivalry, purity of motive, power, grace and grandeur. Bierstadt's Indian brave lancing the last buffalo rides a mount descended from the charger of St. George. Proud and warlike horses elevate their riders. If you want to show a hero, put him on a horse, preferably a white one, though bronze will do as well. Gene Autrey had his Champion, Alexander his Bucephalus. Though English horses tend to be thoroughbreds with tiny heads, the many stronger beasts plunging through these pictures -- through Louis Maurer's "Buffalo Bill Fighting Indians," Frederic Remington's "Return of a Blackfoot War Party," and N.C. Wyeth's "Blue Lock, The Queen" -- demonstrate the debt owed by Western artists to horsey English art.
The forests of Durand owe almost as much to the leafy landscapes of the frenchman Claude Lorrain. Moran's plunging cataract suggests the art of Turner and of Caper David Friedrich. H.A. MacNeil's bronze of an Indian boy with bow would not have looked out of place in a beaux-arts French salon. B.J.O. Norfeld, one painter of the Taos school represented here, learned how to paint mountains by studying Cezanne. Though cowboys are American, European stories of bravery and conquest, and European styles -- expressionism, impressionism, even early cubism -- have left marks on this show.
Yet no one would confuse these works with European pictures. What makes them look American is, above all else, their light. No matter what their subjects -- horsemen riding into town, vaqueros on the range, the flow of the Red River, a stage coach or an Indian dance -- the true star of these pictures is colored Western light.
It turns the mountains purple, bleaches Indian pueblos, washes prairie dust. Chester Loomis's "Antelope Hunters" is so full of sun that it makes the viewer squint even as it shows him how bleak the plains of Texas were before the oil wells came in.
Many of these paintings are but well-made illustrations; the stories that they tell -- of mighty deeds and mighty steeds and of Indians who are either wholly good or wholly evil -- seem dramatic fabrications. These pictures, like the movies they influenced so greatly, tell us less about our history than they do about the daydreams set loose by Western light.
"The American West," which nicely surveys Western art from Catlin to O'Keefe, will remain at the Corcoran through April 26.