Thirty years ago, Rich Hall – a southerner – bought a ranch in Montana.He's been thinking about the West, and what it means, ever since

Like most modern residents of the West, I am a transplant, drawn there by its elusive, romantic past. I arrived in 1988 in a town called Livingston, Montana. I didn't know a soul. I'd read a lot of Thomas McGuane and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I pulled up at a real estate office and in the window was a picture of a very run-down "original homestead" for sale. So I bought the place. I guess, I wanted to be a cowboy – or at least to play at it. Most of us have done at some point and to be a cowboy, you have to go West.

The cowboy – our notion of the cowboy, that is – was invented to heal the schism of the American Civil War. The United States, post Civil War, was a maze of paradoxes. On the one hand, it was driven by restless energy and a burgeoning work ethic. The East was an industrial powerhouse. Among its workers there was a sense of mission, but most of these workers were trapped in a cycle of monotony and forced discipline. The word 'employee' did not exist in the 1860s. Factory workers were called 'operatives'. Farm workers were called 'hands'. Servants were called 'help'. All of these were evasive labels. But cowboys were called 'cowboys'.

The first mention of the term was in Wilkes' Spirit of the Times magazine in 1866. By 1877, only 11 years later, his day was pretty much over. The same journal lamented: "The cowboy... how often spoken of, how falsely imagined, how greatly despised, how little understood!" The cowboy was made over by pulp novels and window-dressed by Hollywood. He has been reinvented and reinterpreted a hundred times, then pretty much vanished after George Lucas turned him into Han Solo and put him in space. But the paintings on these pages still capture him in a plein-air luminescence. He is heroic, self-reliant, migratory. The sense of distance in the paintings is disconcerting and non-angular: anything that moves in a straight line is an invitation to predators. Argue, if you want, that the cowboy wants for female companionship; that the vast, seemingly insurmountable distances are an alternative to the peer pressure, human competition and status struggles that consume most Americans. These are men motivated by renewal and a mastery of their own lives. Who still lives that way? No one. Practically no one.

When we look at Western Art, we are looking at the very core of America's identity: exceptionalism. It is the belief, espoused by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, that America's individualism, its dominant character and its coarse energy derived from frontier expansion. His 'Frontier Thesis', first delivered to a gathering of historians at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, didn't kick up too much dust at the time. But, as it gained distribution and influence, it eventually became America's prevailing origin myth. Westward migration explains America's distinctive character.

It is notable that a good number of modern U.S. presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, both Bushs – when asked to name their favourite movie have all named Westerns. George W. Bush, for example, cites High Noon. Gary Cooper standing tall against a gang of thugs come to terrorise an innocent town. First Cooper tries to muster a posse (or "coalition of the willing", as Bush might call it). Ultimately, he has to go it alone. When George W. Bush used the phrase "you're either with us or against us", he knew exactly how that vernacular would resonate with Americans. At its core, High Noon is a simple black-and-white morality play. A man alone, trying to do the right thing.

In 1890, three years before Turner's historical lecture, the U.S. Census Bureau announced the disappearance of the contiguous frontier line. Top right Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939) Alphonso Bell, 1928 oil on canvas 32 x 40in (81 x 101.5cm) Estimate: $250,000 - 350,000 (£190,000 - 270,000) Bottom right Gerard Curtis Delano (1890-1972) Menominee Hunter oil on canvas 30 x 36in (76 x 91.5cm) Estimate: $150,000 - 250,000 (£115,000 - 190,000) Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) Mount St Helens, Columbia River, Oregon oil on canvas 18 x 32½in (45.5 x 82.5cm) Estimate: $500,000 - 700,000 (£385,000 - 540,000) 32 Bonhams Turner used this "closing of the frontier" as an opportunity to reflect on the influence it had exercised. He pointed out that America was a succession of generations that constantly faced "primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line". He called it "the meeting point between savagery and civilisation". Is this honest? Not particularly. But it is romantic.

No country has been better at romanticising its tumultuous past than America. And its most distinctive image is the horseman, wrangler, chevalier, drifter, cowboy. He inhabits a period, frozen in amber, between the early traders/trappers of the 19th century and the hordes of advancing settlers who parcelled out the land and fenced it in. In 1869, only three years after the cowboy had been defined, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. When cattle began to be moved predominantly by boxcar, the cowboy lost his purpose.

But if the rails heralded the end of the cowboy, they also brought newcomers. The trains brought young artists from the East coast and Europe to the West. They discovered a pristine beauty ripe for painting. The Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, the California Coast, the volcanoes of northern California and the Northwest all became perfect images to capture and bring home to an audience dazzled by such previously unknown wonders.

From an artistic standpoint, the ethos of American exceptionalism – or, as it was often called, 'Manifest Destiny' – is far too vast a concept for a single oil canvas to encompass, but artists such as Prussian-born Albert Bierstadt, whose serene oil painting of Mount St Helens is offered as part of the L.D. 'Brink' Brinkman Collection in Los Angeles in February, captures the pioneering spirit of the times.

These Technicolour landscapes strive to depict the magnificence of the West: glassy lakes, over which Gerard Delano's Native American glides in his canoe, cascading waterfalls, thunderous skies seemingly meant to prove that American nature was grander than anything in Europe.

Now there is an added dimension to the way in which we view these paintings. The landscape that Alphonso Bell surveys in Frank Tenney Johnson's 1928 painting is a pristine wilderness. Three generations ago, the West was home to 250,000 people. Now, it has 50 million, an increase of 20,000 per cent. By 2050, four million people will be living in Phoenix, Arizona, a town that was originally a small patch of farmland in an otherwise inhospitable desert. This, of course, is sheer lunacy. Without proper stewardship and a sustainable land ethic, the West, as we like to think of it, will soon be completely gone. Any actual semblance of the thing Turner described as "the essence of our national character" sits way off the Interstate – and probably has a souvenir shop attached to it. The Western painter is left to figure out how to claim or reclaim his emotional homeland. Call it overtly masculine, or old-school. But you cannot deny Western Painting stands for something: renewal.

The West is an old myth that always represents a new start. It's a way of looking at the world that begins with a leather saddle and a vast distance to be solved.

Rich Hall writes about the history of the West and made the BBC's documentary, How the West Was Lost. He lives on a ranch in Montana.

Sale: The L.D. "Brink" Brinkman Collection
Los Angeles
Friday 8 February at 12 noon
Online sale: 8-15 February
Enquiries: Scot Levitt
+1 323 436 5425
[email protected]


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