Booth Museum by Dana Hoff

LONG BEFORE GLOSSY BROCHURES, camera phones and Google image searches, there were artists who forged the American West to capture its vast expanses, mountainous grandeur and native inhabitants. These early explorer artists — often commissioned by the military or private exploration parties — ventured into uncharted territory throughout the mid- to late-19th century, and returned to the East with depictions of raw beauty and rugged landscapes that portrayed the West as a land of possibility, promise and unlimited opportunity. 

“These folks were artists and they thought like artists; they created imagery that came out of their imagination and transferred concepts like manifest destiny to the public,” says B. Byron Price, director of the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma.

It was the work of early explorer artists that instilled in the art-viewing public back East the idea of the West as the land of the Grand Canyon, the Plains Indians and later, the free-spirited cowboy. It also created a new genre of artistic expression: the art of the American West, which, like the early explorer artists, continues to forge new paths even as it preserves the spirit of the West. 

Two museums east of the Mississippi have preserved the traditions of Western American art for their Eastern patrons, and continue to keep the mythology of the Old West alive while celebrating new artistic frontiers forged by contemporary Western artists. 

Tom Murphy, Crystal Creek Aspens, photograph, 28 X 38 inches

Modern West Gallery, Booth Museum

The Booth Western Art Museum
Cartersville, Georgia

Just outside the north entrance to The Booth Western Art Museum stands a 10-foot bronze horse and rider caught in a battle of wills. The piece by Austin Barton is titled Attitude Adjustment, though it’s not clear whose attitude — horse or cowboy — needs adjusting. This iconic Western image perfectly sets the tone for the treasures displayed inside the Booth’s 14 galleries — from traditional works to more contemporary portrayals.

“[The West] symbolizes freedom, independence, the opportunity to make your own way in the world; that is still resonant with a lot of the artists that are working today,” says the Booth’s executive director Seth Hopkins. “It took hard work, it was dangerous, there was a risk-reward proposition, [but] if you worked hard ... you could be successful.”

The Booth opened its doors through a local family’s anonymous donation in 2003. In 2009, the 80,000-square-foot gallery expanded, adding 40,000 square feet and doubling its gallery space. The original structure became two galleries that present a chronological look at the first 100 years of Western American art. Here, visitors see the images — by Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, George Catlin, Alfred Jacob Miller, Albert Bierstadt and more — that instilled an early sense of American spirit and moved an entire nation westward in hopes of a bright future. 

Booth Museum: Photography Exposed

For touring exhibits, Hopkins likes to complement the museums existing collection, as well as fill in gaps that may exist. “We generally don’t collect photography,” he says, “so we have two big photography exhibitions coming up this year.” 

The first, displayed from May 22 – September 12, 2010, will explore the work of living photographer Tom Murphy. Titled Four Seasons in Yellowstone, the exhibit will feature 40 images that capture the flora and fauna of Yellowstone National Park. 

From September 24, 2010 – March 13, 2011, the Booth will welcome the exhibit Ansel Adams: A Legacy to showcase more than 100 photographs by one  of the 20th century’s most recognizable photographers. 

For more information and descriptions of ongoing events, visit

Civil War Gallery, Booth Museum

The bulk of Booth’s collection is housed in the new structure, and is made up primarily of living or recently deceased Western artists, providing an expansive perspective of shifts and changes in Western art over the course of the last 50 years. These galleries are rich with work that is stylistically contemporary, but that fits within a broader historical context of Western art. Examples include Kevin Red Star’s portraits of Native American culture, and more ironic portrayals by Fritz Scholder. 

Joining the two buildings is a glassed-in, two-story sculpture court that features traditional-style Western sculpture on the main level and contemporary sculpture on the second floor. The museum also houses an extensive Civil War gallery, presidential gallery and more than 200 Native American artifacts on loan from private collectors. 

“Our goal is to exhibit the best of Western art as we see it; the Realist traditional that dates back to the history of Western art, and the more contemporary style,” says Hopkins.

Henry Farny, On the Trail in Winter, 1894, gouache on paper. Photo James O. Milmoe

Rockwell Museum by Frank Borkowski

The Rockwell Museum of Western Art
Corning, New York

The Rockwell Museum of Western Art began with a West-meets-East love story. Founder Bob Rockwell grew up in Colorado and began collecting anything he could get his hands on — from animal skeletons to butterflies — at an early age. As a young adult, he journeyed east to Corning, New York, in what was supposed to be a temporary stint in his grandfather’s department store. There, he fell in love with Hertha Godley, who worked in the accounting department. The two married and made their home in New York’s Finger Lakes region, where Bob lived out his love of the West by collecting cowboy paintings by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, landscapes by Albert Bierstadt, Native American depictions by Henry Francois Farny and more.

Patrons of the couple’s department store enjoyed the works of art that dotted the walls, but as his collection grew, so did Bob’s desire to display it to a broader audience. In 1974, Corning Glass Works converted Corning’s old city hall building into a museum space, and Bob and Hertha donated the bulk of their collection of Western art. The museum now boasts about 5,000 pieces in its permanent collection and features some of the most renowned artists in the genre.

“Some of our more iconic pieces would definitely be more of our traditional Western art,” says Beth Manwaring, the Rockwell’s marketing and communications specialist. “We have a gallery called the Remington and Russell Lodge; no Western art museum would be complete without the bronze and landscape paintings from those two famous cowboy artists.”

Rockwell Museum: The Next West

From May 19, 2010 – January 9, 2011, the Rockwell will host an exhibit that originated at the Booth Museum of Western Art in 2007 entitled 21st Century Regionalists: The Art of the Next West. 

The exhibition features contemporary artists who are expanding the definition of Western art, and giving voice to the genre beyond geographical and philosophical boundaries.

“The idea is to explore Regionalism, which was an early 20th-century genre in the United States; we’re giving it kind of a contemporary voice,” says Hoffman. “We’re arguing that there is a new Regionalism, and it really is this kind of reviving of Western art on a contemporary level.” 

For more information, and a description of ongoing events, visit

Rockwell Museum’s Visions of the West Gallery

In addition to traditional cowboy art, the Rockwell’s collection includes work from early explorer artists, cowboy illustrations, historic and contemporary Native American pieces, photography and a substantial firearms collection with pieces dating from the late 1800s to the turn of the 20th century. 

To complement its permanent collection, the Rockwell hosts roughly three touring exhibitions per year. “I like to make sure we give a wide offering of exhibitions throughout the year and throughout a multi-year period so [visitors] get exposed to modern or contemporary art and more traditional art,” says Sheila Hoffman, the museum’s curator. 

With its roots firmly planted in the East, Western American art continues to capture the national imagination, and draw an audience from every corner of the United States and beyond. “The West has always stood for America, in many ways; what we most like about ourselves and the courage and rugged individualism,” says Price. “While it is surprising to find a museum devoted to this kind of artwork in a setting that is not in the West, I say why not? Great art speaks across time and place and among a variety of different people.”

Relax inside the Rockwell Museum of Art in the Remington and Russell Lodge. Photo by Frank Borkowski

Bierstadt | Mt. Whitney

Joseph Sharp, Prayer to the Spirit of the Buffalo, 1910, oil on canvas. Photo Charles Swain

N. C. Wyeth, I Shall Never Forget the Sight. It Was Like a Great Green Sea, 1918, oil on canvas. Photo Frank Borkowski