Moving Westerns: A Charles Deas exhibit brings the best of the West to the Denver Art Museum

The opening of the American West in the first half of the nineteenth century led to a major development in this country's art history. Though the United States was an aesthetic backwater at the time, painters (and, later, sculptors and photographers) recording the exotic sights and people of the region began to produce work that would fascinate viewers not just on the East Coast, but in Europe, too.

And that fascination with Western art has hardly abated during the intervening century and a half, making it our region's greatest cultural asset. But here in the Mile High City, we've had a love/hate relationship with the field, which is why it wasn't until the past few decades that the Denver Art Museum turned its focus on the topic. Before that, it was a little embarrassing to the powers-that-be there to collect pictures of cowboys and Indians. To them, it made the city look provincial.

It was under the guidance of former DAM director Lewis Sharp that attention and resources were finally aimed at Western art, and the result is a credible collection (notably, the acquisition of the Harmsen Collection) and the founding of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art. Sharp was also instrumental in the expansion of gallery space devoted to the Western material: Nearly the entire seventh floor of the Ponti Building, as well as a suite of galleries on the second level, are given over to it. 

Among this latter group is the Gates Western Gallery, where Charles Deas and 1840s America is on view. A little known though clearly talented painter, Deas has never been the subject of a retrospective, and the DAM is the only place where this one will be shown. That's too bad, since one of the great values of this show is the possibility that it could lead to the discovery of heretofore unknown Deas paintings; the artist frequently left his pieces unsigned or hid his signature somewhere within his compositions. (When I saw the show, I actually found a signature that hadn't been spotted before.)

The principal author of the show's catalogue is Carol Clark, the world's foremost Deas scholar. Clark, now a professor of art history at Amherst College, has written that she first became interested in the artist when, a dozen years ago, the DAM acquired "Long Jakes," a Deas masterpiece; by coincidence, Clark's office at Columbia University, where she was then teaching, overlooked the former grounds of the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane, where Deas spent decades before dying in 1867.

The fact that Deas was deemed insane and left no direct heirs partly explains his obscurity. One intriguing thing that Clark told me was that Deas continued to paint during his incarceration in the asylum and that his paintings continued to be exhibited, though only a few of these are known to still exist, and none of them are in this show. 

Deas was born in Philadelphia in 1818 to a formerly prominent family. The details of his early life are sketchy, but by 1837, when he was nineteen, he was in New York studying at the National Academy of Design. Among the oldest paintings in the show, which is, loosely speaking, in chronological order, is "Turkey Shooting," an oil on canvas from 1838. The piece is interesting, especially with the freed slave in the center of the picture and the little black boy in the foreground, neither of which are typical subject matter for artists from that period. But stylistically, it's decidedly old-fashioned-looking for its date, and that's the case with the other 1830s paintings in the show as well.

Economic hard times in the 1830s meant that Deas had trouble selling his paintings, so in 1840 he went west, which at that time meant the Midwest, joining his brother, who was stationed at Fort Crawford in Wisconsin. Here he encountered the Native Americans and frontiersmen who would later make his career. One painting from this time is the unusual — and fabulous — "Lion," from 1841, a commissioned portrait of a hunting dog owned by Henry Sibley, who would later become Minnesota's first governor.

In the fall of that year, Deas established a studio in St. Louis. His paintings from the time demonstrate a major advancement in his style, so rather than being behind the curve, as he'd been in New York, he was now ahead of it. Some are scenes of Indians at their leisure, like 1842's "Winnebagos Playing Checkers," a dark, eye-catching painting filled with interesting details. More dramatic are Deas's stunning action scenes, including the compelling "Sioux Playing Ball," from 1843, which depicts heavily muscled, nearly nude warriors in the midst of a game of lacrosse. Deas perfectly renders the figures while conveying the awe-inspiring vastness of the plains and sky in the background.

Other works conveying action include 1845's "The Death Struggle," in which men on horseback are involved in hand-to-hand combat, and 1847's "Prairie on Fire," with settlers fleeing in panic from a wildfire.

More calm in effect are a quartet of large-scale portraits of Indians that were discovered in the collection of the University of Missouri. For many years, the portraits were thought to be the work of George Catlin, but honestly, they're better than his work. As early as the 1970s, there were some who believed they were actually by Deas, a fact proved by a signed study for one of the paintings — "Winnebago (Wa-kon-cha-hi-re-ga) in a Bark Lodge" — that's included in the DAM show. Another study, "Sho-ko-ni-ka / Little Hill" has no known corresponding painting, suggesting that the larger work could still exist somewhere, perhaps languishing in a museum storage room or low-profile private collection.

"Long Jakes" is also a portrait, but it's a full-figure rendering of a trapper on horseback. The composition is tremendous, with the horse forming an arch across the bottom of the picture. Jakes himself is conveyed as an upwardly thrusting diagonal.

The painting probably gained its greatest exposure just a few years ago, when it was central to a questionable partial trade between the DAM and the privately held Anschutz Collection. The DAM gave half ownership of "Long Jakes" to Anschutz in exchange for the museum getting half ownership of "Cowboy Singing," by Thomas Eakins. The Eakins was in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which sold it to Anschutz in order to purchase one of the artist's great masterpieces, "The Gross Clinic." The deal struck me as strange at the time, but understandable given the DAM's limited resources for new acquisitions versus the vast sums associated with Anschutz (see "Cowboy Singing," May 1, 2008). In response to the situation, the Association of Art Museum Directors issued a letter in 2009 against the idea of "fractional deaccessions" — though the group has never criticized complete deaccessions, which seems a little hypocritical. The good news is that "Long Jakes" is still in Denver, and the DAM gained an Eakins, or at least half of one.

One of the newest paintings in the show is also one of the strangest. Titled "A Solitary Indian, Seated on the Edge of a Bold Precipice," it's practically a pinup with a lot of erotic content. The well-built Indian, who's stripped to the waist and has one bare foot hanging down into the air, gazes off into the distance with what could only be called a come-hither look. It was done shortly before Deas left St. Louis and returned to New York. Though Deas had earlier shown an interest in the virility of the Indians, none of the other paintings has this kind of subtext — not even the lacrosse scene, where the players are rendered as pure beefcake.

Back in New York in 1847, Deas re-enrolled in the National Academy of Design, but there was a definite change in his work that prefigured his mental illness: He switched from Western scenes to religious topics. The next year, at the age of 29, he entered the Bloomingdale Asylum and would also be treated at another mental health institution, Sanford Hall. He spent the rest of his life in treatment, dying in 1867 at Bloomingdale, when he was only 48.

Deas's life makes an interesting yarn, but his paintings are the heart of his story.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

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