Art: Review: Vanishing Frontier

Cincinnati Art Museum explores American Indian imagery

Cincinnati Art Museum

Henry Farny's "Indian Scout"

"And now ... the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history," declared historian Frederick Jackson Turner in a speech at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His statement shocked the American public. For decades, the American identity had been wrapped up in exploration and westward expansion. What would it mean to be American now that the frontier had been conquered?

Artists had already been addressing that question, and much artwork exhibited at the Columbian Exposition — the world's fair of industry and the arts — provided the answer. The American Indian — specifically, the noble, resolute Plains Indian living in harmony with nature — became the emblem of all that late-19th-century Americans suddenly realized they had lost.

This sense of loss provides the guiding theme of Vanishing Frontier: Rookwood, Farny, and the American Indian, now on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). The multi-faceted exhibition brings together 52 Rookwood ceramics, 40 paintings by Henry Farny and 35 American Indian artifacts, all of which come either from private collections or the buried storage rooms of the CAM. Reproductions of photographs used as sources for the artwork give further context.

Like so much American history, the romantic notion of the noble Indian at the end of the 19th century smacked of hypocrisy.

Prior to this period, whites feared the American Indians, brought disease and destruction to their way of life, drove them off their lands to reservations, forced Christianity on them and sent their children away to boarding schools. Once the mêlée was over, American consumers appeased their guilt by purchasing idyllic pictures of the culture they had decimated.

Vanishing Frontier does a good job dissecting the mythology of the American Indian as constructed through art and popular imagery.

The work certainly was marketable in its day — both Farny and Rookwood capitalized on the public's nostalgia for the frontier and on the taste for romanticized images of the American Indian. Farny made only four trips to the Far West, but spent the remainder of his career painting American Indians, believing the West was "fuller of material for the artist than any country in Europe." A few portraits painted from life during these trips hang at the beginning of the exhibition, exemplifying the artist's technical skill.

At the same time Farny painted images of the American Indian, Rookwood artists trained with Frank Duveneck to learn figure and portrait painting. Soon after, in about 1892, they began to incorporate American Indian portraits into ceramic decorations. The dark, earthy palette typical of the Munich school style they learned from Duveneck lent itself perfectly to Rookwood's glazing techniques. Melancholy faces dramatically emerge from deep, brown glazes as if from shadow. Studied as paintings, the likenesses pale in comparison to the technical virtuoso of Farny's painstakingly rendered work, but one must remember that Rookwood was a production facility. The artists deliberately left out details to save time. According to Anita Ellis, the deputy director of curatorial affairs at the CAM, we know the names of Rookwood artists because they were required to mark their work, which was monitored to make sure they met their quotas.

Rookwood churned out these ceramics because they sold quickly. Adorned with portraits of American Indians, they were bought to satisfy nostalgia for the frontier. Plains Indians provided the most familiar image to the public, and even if the artist's source depicted a Southwestern Indian, the artist imbued him with Plains attributes. For instance, a Hopi Indian appears on the vase called "Rabbit Hunter" wearing a feather in his hair and beads that were only worn by Plains Indians.

Farny took similar license in his paintings. Despite his meticulous attention to detail, evident when compared with the artifacts on view, he often confused cultures and time periods. Feathered war bonnets were a recognizable prop, yet American Indians only wore them during important ceremonies. If you based your knowledge on Farny's paintings, Rookwood ceramics or other popular imagery of the late 19th century, you'd think they wore them nearly every day.

A Rookwood portrait called "Susie Shot-in-the-Eye," depicts the wife of a chief wearing a war bonnet, even though women did not wear them. The persistent misunderstanding of American Indian culture didn't matter to an eager buying public — they couldn't tell the difference and probably didn't bother to question it. Farny entitled a lovely painting of a young American Indian woman and child in the snow "Winter Squaw," a term we now know is demeaning — squaw means prostitute.

The curators originally conceived the exhibition as two separate shows. Ellis and ethnologist Susan Meyn were researching Rookwood's ceramic portraits of American Indians and their historical context, and Kristin Spangenberg, curator of prints, drawings and photographs, was developing an exhibition of Farny gouaches when Aaron Betsky joined the museum as its new director.

Betsky saw how well the projects complemented each other. Combining them was an ingenious move. The show accommodates many levels of interest. From visitors who simply enjoy looking at Western paintings, Rookwood or American Indian artifacts — the show is filled with gorgeous examples of all three — to those who want to delve into the artists' motives, the reasons for the imagery's popularity and the inherent untruths perpetuated in the images.

In addition to examining the construction of the visual mythology of the American Indian, the museum has once again placed Cincinnati in the larger context of national history. While Farny and Rookwood were based locally, they helped to create a mindset that was prevalent throughout the United States. Grade: A

VANISHING FRONTIER is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Jan. 20. Get exhibition details and times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

Scroll to read more Visual Arts articles

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.