The western frontier has exerted a powerful hold on the imagination of European-Americans for centuries—particularly on artists and their audiences. DISCOVERED LANDS, INVENTED PASTS is a handsomely illustrated art book that pays tribute to the aesthetic achievement of western art while also examining the complex historical interplay involving American society, the frontier, and the visual arts.
DISCOVERED LANDS, INVENTED PASTS is notable partly for its impressive collection of seventy-five black-and-white illustrations and thirty-six color plates. These reproductions of oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings from the early nineteenth century to the present reveal a wide variety of subjects, techniques, and attitudes.
The introduction and six essays that discuss these reproductions share a common theme: that the relationship among society, frontier, and art is more complex than has been previously recognized. These critical writings identify three key processes which contributed to the creation of western art: discovery, erasure, and invention. In the discovery phase, European-American artists strove to record the unfamiliar landscapes, plants, animals, and human cultures of the American West. This representation of discovery, however, sometimes led to erasure—the intentional or unconscious removal from an artistic image of elements that did not conform to an artist’s preconceptions or intentions. Native Americans may sometimes have been omitted, for example, to reinforce the ideal of a pristine wilderness. Thus no matter how purely documentary the intention of a western artist, the appreciation and understanding of such art can be enhanced by learning more about the processes of invention—how the artist transformed what he or she saw in constructing a work of art that reflects culture and idealogy.
Individual essays focus on such specific topics as Native Americans, women on the frontier, expansion and progress, artists and audience, and social change and nostalgia. The style of the essays, though academic, is clear and insightful without being stuffy or pedantic. DISCOVERED LANDS, INVENTED PASTS is informative and appealing for both the student and the general reader.