Park City Museum looks at the real and imagined Manifest Destiny
What: “Imprinting the West: Manifest Destiny Real and Imagined” When: Through Jan. 7 Where: Park City Museum, 528 Main St. Web: parkcityhistory.org
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon struck one of the biggest real estate deals in history: the Louisiana Purchase. For $15 million ($576 billion in 2018 dollars), the United States bought nearly 830,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River from France, doubling its size. As Americans rushed to colonize the Great Plains and the Rockies guided by the quasi-religious idea of manifest destiny – the belief that whites were destined to settle North America from coast to coast – they butted heads with the people who had already been living there for centuries.
These conflicts are brought to the forefront in “Imprinting the West: Manifest Destiny Real and Imagined,” a new traveling exhibit that is at the Park City Museum’s Tozer Gallery through Jan. 7.
The exhibit was developed by ExhibitsUSA, a national program of the Mid-America Arts Alliance, said Courtney Titus, the Park City Museum’s curator of collections and exhibits.
The images, curated by Randall Griffey, an expert in modern American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, consist primarily of monochrome and hand colored lithographs, engravings, etchings and woodcuts that date back to the mid-to-late 19th century, according to Titus.
“The exhibit depicts the (American) West and westward expansion, and it also explores the influence the various artists had on people’s perceptions of what the West was,” she said. “The interesting thing about this is the works that people will see may or may not be historically accurate. However, the works do show how the artists used their influences to create, in some cases more than others, fantasies of what the West was.”
Manifest destiny was often depicted in propagandistic terms – the textbook example being John Gast’s 1872 painting, “American Progress,” which depicts an anthropomorphic Columbia guiding white settlers west and driving away a darkness as Native Americans flee on horseback.
“Expeditions began to head west to explore the new territory, and many of them were sponsored by the government,” Titus explained. “Artists would accompany these expeditions to visually document what they were seeing.”
The art from these expeditions included landscapes, portraits of Native Americans and depictions of their culture, with varying degrees of accuracy.
“Many of these artists also had their own agendas, and they put their own spin on how the Native Americans were depicted,” Titus said.
Some of the artists painted unflattering representations of Native Americans, while others wanted to accurately document what they saw, she said.
One of the latter was George Catlin, a Pennsylvanian who painted numerous portraits of Plains Indians over five trips West in the 1830s.
“He felt it was his duty to document this ‘vanishing race,’ as he called it,” Titus said. “He didn’t like the attitudes that may of the settlers had that the Native Americans were savages. He wanted to change the attitude through his work. So, in a way, he had his own agenda as well.”
The exhibit includes some interactive elements, Titus said.
“In one area visitors can make note of their experiences with the exhibit and share how they felt,” she said. “We will also have some object cards that list items you can find within the pictures.”
The last area is a table where kids can color bison cutouts and tape them to a poster depicting the Great Plains.
“We also have some books about the history of the West,” Titus said. “People can use them as references while looking at the images.”
Titus likes the exhibit because the subject matter intertwines with Park City history.
“Park City was part of the Western expansion,” she said. “I do love looking at the images because, whether or not they are accurate, they are beautiful.”
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