If you think of art of the American West from the late 1800s through the early 1900s, the names that likely will come to mind are Frederic Remington, Edgar S. Paxson and Charles M. Russell – men whose often sprawling canvases took a romantic or sometimes mythic view.
There were other, less heralded artists working at the time who took a vastly different approach.
A new exhibition, “Intimate West: Women Artists in Montana 1880-1944,” surveys their interpretation of the West in that period. In place of scenes of cowboys are portraits, interiors and landscapes informed by European post-impressionists, and candid photographs of daily life.
The Montana Museum of Art and Culture began building this exhibition with portraits by Francis Carroll Brown, a granddaughter of Copper King Marcus Daly.
Curator Jeremy Canwell said they realized her works, in concert with others, could become "a different sort of vision of the West."
The show comprises paintings from the museum's 11,000-piece Permanent Collection, augmented with works loaned from the Montana Historical Society in Helena and the Mansfield Library archives at the University of Montana.
Many of the painters, like Brown, Fra Dana and Josephine Hale, studied art or spent time in Europe, Canwell said, which immediately distinguishes their work from the Romantic, realist styles of painters like Russell. According to his research, they often traveled across Montana alone to pursue their work.
"You see artists trying to integrate their experience of post-impressionism and other European styles, but assimilating them and using them to depict distinctly Western subject matter," he said.
A particularly distinctive example to Canwell comes from Dana (1874-1948), who studied art in Cincinnati, Chicago and New York and traveled the world extensively before settling in Great Falls.
While she is well-represented with her lushly rendered still lifes, "Fenceposts" is a rare landscape, he said. It depicts a scene that could've been painted in western Montana last fall: a series of wooden posts in the foreground, followed by a snowy field, a brown tree-line and a white sky.
"This is really a faint trace of mountains in the background," Canwell said. "You have several layers of separation between the artist and nature." In contrast to a scene glorifying the landscape, Dana's "makes me think of nature's utter indifference" to our presence, Canwell said.
Even in the still lifes, Canwell said there are insights about the artist. The same glass figures in three paintings. It indicates a part of her daily artistic life: arranging table-top scenes and painting them.
"It's a great opportunity to see how they live (and) what surrounded them," said Barbara Koostra, MMAC's artistic director.
Hale is represented with small studies and finished paintings from Glacier National Park that more closely resemble "long, thoughtful studies of the natural world" than grandiose landscapes, Canwell said.
Those paintings will be on display in the MMAC's Meloy gallery in the PAR/TV Center at UM. Across the lobby in the Paxson are a selection of historical photographs. There are three framed prints by Evelyn Cameron, the pioneering photographer, in addition to one of her cameras, a 1902 Folmer and Schwing.
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While Cameron had training, the other photographers in the exhibition were hobbyists whose work provides a window into the craft as become a part of people's everyday lives.
"There's a public side of life that appeared in easel painting, where there's a private side that could appear in photographs," he said.
The Mansfield loaned a book of photographs, most taken in 1900, by Marguerite O. Stevens (Maloney), who moved to Missoula in 1888. They're assembled in journal-like fashion and will be shown in a display case. Digital images will be projected on the wall for larger viewing of the often-small prints.
Two captured historical moments: One, as residents standing on planks during the 1908 flood. In another, she traveled to Butte for the "First Flying Machine in Montana," a 1911 event that drew 10,000 spectators.
"It was probably the most-photographed moment in history in Montana at that point," Canwell said.
In the vertical image, a vehicle races beneath the plane in a demonstration of superior aerial speed.
In other respects, the page gives an indication of how much life has stayed the same. It resembles a quick scan through a western Montanan's Instagram feed in 2017: A self-portrait. A photograph of a little dog in a mid-air jump. A snapshot of a waterfall. Pictures from trips to the reservation.
Many of them were shot in 1900, the same time period that Paxson was recreating scenes of a bygone era.
"This is what it really looked like here," Canwell said.
Accompanying the photographs are portraits of Native people by artists Elsa Jemne, Elizabeth Lochrie and Caroline Ganger. Most are composed in the style of formal portrait sittings. The two were part of German artist Winhold Reiss' summer art school in Glacier National Park
Their work features flattened planes of color, a sign of their European influence, he said.
Granger's "Bird in Cloud Packs the Hat and Little Cherry," a portrait of a mother and child in traditional clothing, bears the influence of the fauves, Canwell said, with heightened color and simplified lines.
There's a specificity to the works in the exhibition that contrasts with the archetypes often associated with the genre, Canwell said.
"The idea that these are actual people, actual moments in time, actual specific places," he said. "It creates a world that Western art usually resists."