Both Cole and Moran figure prominently in "The Anatomy of Nature," but for a very different reason. They are among six landscape artists whom author Rebecca Bedell singles out as exemplars linking art, science and politics in 19th century America. "[T]hey struggled to create respected, valued, and profitable positions for themselves ... as educators, moralists, patriots, explorers, and facilitators of national expanse and economic development," argues Bedell. "In all of these ambitious undertakings, the artists' knowledge of geology played a part."
"The Anatomy of Nature" reveals the origins of fine art in oblique but illuminating ways. Bedell shows us, for example, the battered wooden box in which artist Thomas Cole kept his own collection of minerals, fossils and stone artifacts. "As his mineral cabinet suggests," she writes, "Cole made no firm distinction between art and science, between human history and natural history."
Moran, too, was no mere salon painter. He accompanied three "Great Surveys" of the American West, including one conducted by Powell, and his heroic canvases of the Yellowstone and Colorado rivers are informed by his firsthand experience of the wilderness: "Artists and scientists ... shared the same bread-and-bacon meals and faced the same hardships and dangers," writes Bedell. "Photographing, sketching, and painting were alternate modes of collecting samples, taking notes, performing analyses, and making reports."
Thus did art and science contribute to the westward thrust of the American enterprise. "[G]eologists and landscape painters," argues Bedell, "were able to collaborate in numerous social endeavors: promoting patriotism, spreading scientific knowledge, teaching moral lessons, inspiring religious awe, encouraging westward expansion, and fostering tourism."
Map making and painting, of course, were established art forms when Europeans first arrived in the New World. Photography, by contrast, was a technology that emerged just as the exploration of the Western frontier was reaching its end: "a new medium and a new place that came of age together in the nineteenth century," as Martha A. Sandweiss puts it in "Print the Legend."
Sandweiss acknowledges that the West had long been the subject of "paintings and prints, maps and drawings," as we have seen here, but she insists that "photographs seemed to make this imagined place more real." As early as the 1840s, shortly after the invention of the daguerreotype, and continuing with ever-increasing effect over the remaining decades of the 19th century, images of the West -- the Mexican-American War and the California Gold Rush, Geronimo and Custer, Yellowstone and Yosemite and the Grand Canyon -- were being seen all over the world. "[N]o part of the American historical imagination," insists Sandweiss, "is so shaped by visual imagery as its image of the nineteenth-century American West."
Sandweiss includes a variety of vintage photographs, ranging from a hand-colored battle scene from the Mexican-American War to a "Wyoming Cow-boy" so stereotypical that it seems almost comical. But her book is meant to serve as a work of social and cultural history, and she makes the point, which applies as forcefully to landscape painting and map making as it does to photography, that an image can distort and ultimately replace the hard reality that it purports to depict.
A telling moment comes when she describes the work of turn-of-the-century Montana photographer Laton A. Huffman, who made and marketed about 83,000 photographs of the American West. For Huffman, as Sandweiss explains, "Montana's charm lay not in the complicated present, but in a storied past characterized by picturesque scenes of cowboy life." And Huffman offered "to make his prints more true to imagined memory than ever the original scenes had been" by painting in elements: prairie dogs, buffalo chips, distant hills or nearer buttes.
"With a hair on a stick," as Huffman himself put it, he could enhance his photographs with "the wanted details," thus anticipating the work that is now done with microprocessors by the movie makers and music video directors who are the latest generation of myth makers in the American West.
The essential quality of a frontier, of course, is the opportunity for self-invention. That's why the West attracted not only explorers, pioneers and entrepreneurs but also utopians, fantasists and zealots of all kinds -- and still does. Artists, map makers and photographers were no less susceptible to the impulse to remake what their eyes beheld, and they left behind unique visual evidence of the whole process. Indeed, these four books remind us that even the most earnest effort to capture the West in an image -- a 16th century map no less than a 21st century music video -- is inevitably an act of imagination and sometimes an act of distortion.