The Weak Never Started (and it never ended either)
The perpetuation of western art in a Western discipline
In my discussion, I will analyze the image and implications of The Weak Never Started, a western painting in the University of Texas Art Museum from the collection of C. R. Smith. On a broader level, I will talk about the genre of western painting and its tenuous status in the scheme of Western art, art history, and art collecting. But already, I must backtrack and define my terms. Studying western art immediately leads to the confusion of differentiating western, as in cowboys & Indians, and Western, as in the European tradition. During my talk I will generally be referring to the former, but when I do employ the broader definition, the capitalized Western, I will try to make the distinction clear.
Also, in keeping with the standard language to discuss western painting, I will use the term Indian when referring to Native Americans. The nineteenth century western genre generally objectifies and typifies Indians, keeping them securely in place as the “other,” and never recognizing their true Americanness. This inherently politically incorrect context prohibits the use of the modern preferred vocabulary.
So now, without even having looked at the main focus of my paper, The Weak Never Started, I already have stated reasons to object to a statement in the Introduction to the first catalog of paintings in the C. R. Smith collection. Nicolai Cikovsky writes, “It is almost pointless to comment on this, or any other…paintings of the West, for the simple reason that the works largely speak for themselves.” (1 LEFT) But this painting does not have a voice of its own, and it is my goal to speak to the issues implied by and inspired by The Weak.
J. M. Boundy’s The Weak Never Started , painted in 1861, is a copy of a copy. Judging from certain formal elements in the painting and from the likelihood of having ready access to a print easier than an original work, it seems certain that Boundy copied The Weak Never Started from this lithograph by Leopold Grozelier, published by J. H. Bufford, as On the Prairie (1 RIGHT). The original painting designed with the same specific formal traits is Carl Wimar’s Attack on an Emigrant Train (2 RIGHT), painted in 1856.
Boundy and Grozelier are not the only artists who found a source for their art in Wimar’s Attack on an Emigrant Train. The image was directly copied and its theme widely adopted by numerous artists in the nineteenth century, including Wimar’s teacher Emanuel Leutze (2LEFT). The work also influenced Felix Darley (3 LEFT) and Thomas Hill (4 LEFT)for their paintings of white-Indian confrontations on the frontier.
Artists have repeatedly used the narrative message of the Attack on an Emigrant Train because of its effective incorporation of unifying concerns of white Americans. The Attack addresses the issues of Manifest Destiny in a reassuring, supportive way for the white Christian expansionist.
In this image, the band of Indians takes on the role of savage antagonists. The painting adopts the white point of view, ignoring the fact that the Indians could be seen as defending their land from what they consider an invasion. Such acts of aggression were to be interpreted as attacks on the progress of civilization itself.
The Attack on an Emigrant Train adeptly answers the American desire to see itself as a rising nation, yet it does so not by mirroring reality, but by creating a myth of the pioneer experience. It was more important to show the essence rather than to record facts of the pioneer saga. From the wagons themselves to the cloth of the Indian attire, the painting exhibits no evidence of first-hand exposure to actual western accouterments. By the 1840s, Indians had adopted the use of the rifle, but here they are shown using primitive weapons. Furthermore, Indians picked their targets carefully; it was extremely rare for Indians to attack a long wagon train like the one depicted in Wimar’s image.
In fact, Wimar did not paint the Attack from direct observation. Rather, a passage in a book written by a French author inspired the painting, Wimar himself was not even in America when he made the painting, having lived in Germany for most of his life. The Attack is the product of European imagination—even its reinterpretation into lithography was done by a French artist—yet it was presented in a narrative, documentary style and adopted by Americans as the quintessential reality of the American frontier experience.
The European imagination was not only interested in learning about the American frontier, but in appropriating the manners of frontier life. Upon his arrival in the United States, the young Karl Wimar himself changed his name to the anglicized Charles or Carl, and altered the pronunciation of his surname from the German sounding “Vee-mar” to “Why-mer” with a distinct American accent. He adopted a manner of dress and demeanor that made him appear as an Indian, (5 LEFT), was referred to as “the Indian painter” during his schooling in Düsseldorf, and gave his daughter the Indian name Winona.
There is an ongoing discussion in writings about American art as to what extent it relies upon the European tradition. When attempting to define American art as a whole, the majority of art historians ignore the western genre. In The History of American Painting, Isham refuses to discuss American art with western subjects because he considers it to be of such low quality. “Their worst work, which is far commoner than their best, no sympathy can save… Even at their best they lacked the indefinable quality of style, inseparable from great painting.”
Writers who focus on western art tend to analyze the work for its narrative message and ignore its stylistic qualities. To a large degree, this tendency derives from the desire to understand western art as historical documents about America’s past and ideology. Isham’s dismissal of even the most renowned western painters as illustrators and not artists shows in what light western painting is often viewed—as documentation, historical truth, ethnographic study, geological report, or other factual representation. Western art is therefore often judged by how accurately it portrays details of frontier existence.
But art critics, ethnologists, and historians alike have historically criticized the Attack and its copies for not paying attention to factual detail. This leaves me to decipher the popularity of the Attack on an Emigrant Train. Wherein lies its appeal? The Attack clearly spells out for its American audience, in no uncertain terms, that the American spirit will prevail, that the white American family is stronger than the Indian, the trials of an arduous journey, or nature itself. Its academic style aids the Attack in communicating its message as undeniable truth. Its repetition by countless artists cements its reputation as the visualized American past. To nineteenth-century viewers, the Attack on an Emigrant Train displays not only the ideal American scene, but the true American scene. They accept it as reality because of its repeatedly reinforced narrative, precise and straightforward academic style, and finally, because it conformed to the progressive American self-image.
The Weak Never Started came from the collection of C. R. Smith (3RIGHT). Smith was a typical collector of western images—he was not interested in western paintings for any artistic merits, but as signifiers of information from a romanticized era in American mythology. His collection spans 150 years but the paintings are all stylistically quite similar. (6 LEFT). He referred to the pieces in his collection as “things” and took advice on acquisitions from other businessmen or his celebrity friend Will Rogers rather than arts experts. Smith and his western collecting peers have similar attitudes about their acquisitions—they buy what they like without regard for aesthetic quality, but with copious funds and business savvy.
As western painting spans such a long era—from the mid-nineteenth century to the present—and does not neatly fit into stylistic categories, art historians often shy away from studying it. Even in the original catalog of C. R. Smith’s collection, aesthetics is a forbidden subject of discussion. Nicolai Cikovsky states in his introduction that it is “pointless to discuss the aesthetic merits of these works—not only is it merely beside the point, but it violates the spirit in which they were conceived and frame of mind received.” For the main part, these factors leave western art to study by specialists in fields other than art history, such as American history or ethnography. What results is an unspoken refusal to admit western art into the scheme of Western painting.
Although traditional western painting perhaps does not lend itself to analysis in the standard art historical methods, it still holds an undeniably valuable place in art history. The Weak Never Started (10LEFT)is certainly a poorly executed work as far as connoisseurship is concerned in the scheme of Western painting, and in western painting as well. But regardless of its aesthetic failings, the Weak is an icon of nineteenth-century American ideology. It is the quintessential frontier image, and provides a glimpse into the values, goals, and beliefs of the world in which it was created.