Railway art

Springville exhibition shows visions of the Southwest by early artists

Published: Sunday, Feb. 20 2005 5:04 p.m. MST

SPRINGVILLE — In the late 1800s, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway invited Thomas Moran (1837-1926) — an artist who accompanied John Wesley Powell on his first surveying expedition of the Grand Canyon — to revisit the site.

At the company's expense, Moran would paint the beauty and majesty of the region, and in return, the railroad wanted to purchase one of Moran's paintings, along with the reproduction rights, to be used in its advertising campaigns of the Southwest.

Years later, in an attempt to again cash in on America's growing interest in the imagined romance and adventure of the West, Santa Fe Railway advertising agent William Haskell Simpson (1858-1933) began sending artists on three- to four-week all-expenses-paid excursions to record the splendor of the Southwest. This was the start of a decades-long collaboration between artists and the railroad.

Through April 1, "Southwest Visions," a touring exhibition of 50 paintings produced during this period — now part of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway art collection — will be on display at the Springville Museum of Art.

During his career, Simpson purchased more than 600 works of art, primarily from artists painting in the Taos and Santa Fe art schools. The work was used in creating the company's celebrated Santa Fe Calendars, menus, posters that were hung in depots, and in the production of books and brochures about the railway and its many destinations.

"Southwest Visions" is divided into three sections by theme: "Images of the Grand Canyon," "Images of the Pueblo Southwest" and "Women Artists of the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway." Each section demonstrates the quality of Simpson's taste in collecting art.

The "Grand Canyon" section includes works by Louis Akin (1868-1913), A.W. Best (1859-1935), DeWitt Parshall (1864-1956), Elmer Wachtel (1864-1929), Gunnar Widforss (1879-1934) and more. The artists' depiction of one of the most spectacular topographical features of the North American continent is impressive as well as entertaining.

Elliot Dangerfield's (1859-1932) "The Lifting Veil, Grand Canyon" is a strong piece, exhibiting a lush and moody atmosphere. "Grand Canyon from Pima Point" by Jerome Blum, (1884-1956) is also moving, with its depiction of shadow and light on the canyon's rugged walls.

In the early 20th century, the pueblos of the Southwest offered travelers an intriguing glimpse into the vanishing native cultures of North America. The "Pueblo" segment of the exhibit is rich with visuals of dancing, working and playing. Some of the artists here are Lon Megargee (1883-1960), Benjamin Blessum (1877-1954), Charles H. Harmon (1859-1936), J.W. Norton (1876-1934), Leonard Howard Reedy (1899-1956) and more.

"Santo Domingo Trading Post" by H.H. Betts (1883-1915) manifests the many aspects of trading post life with great assurance. Ferdinand Bergdorf's (1881-1975) "Indian Squaw at Pueblo," besides being flush with light colors, is very modern for the time.

The last section, "Women Artists," demonstrates that Simpson was nondiscriminatory when selecting art for the railway's collection: these paintings all are technically sound and marvelous to experience.

Alice Cleaver (1878-1944), Kate T. Cory (1861-1958), Ila McAfee (1898-1950), Doris Rosenthal (1889-1971) and Nellie Shepherd (1877-1920) are just some of the indomitable women artists who braved the rough country to capture the image that held them captive. "Isleta Indian Maiden" by Blanche Dugan Cole (1868-1956) and "Evening Pueblo of Walpi" by Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel (1876-1954) are only two of this section's moving works.

"Southwest Visions" is an engaging and historical exhibit and will undoubtedly bring back memories of the art used by the railways in the first 40 years of the 20th century.

Interested readers may learn more about the exhibit by reading Dean A. Porter's article in the current issue of "American Art Review."

Exhibition is on loan from The Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, N.M.







E-mail: gag@desnews.com

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