The Role of Art in the Westward Expansion

Glorifying the Wilderness Experience

So many things drove the westward expansion of the 1800s. The lure of a better life. Cheap land. Adventure. The railroad. Art.


Wait a minute. How did art drive the westward expansion?

Home in the Woods by Thomas Cole (1847)

Home in the Woods by Thomas Cole (1847)

In the mid-1800s, a new wave hit the artistic community, a desire to show nature in its most glorified state. Known as the Hudson River School, this movement focused on dramatic landscapes painted with romanticism and wonderful uses of light and detail to make the subject even more attractive than it might usually appear. It derived its name from the original locales that were painted–such places as the Hudson River Valley, Catskills, Adirondack, and the White Mountains. As the movement grew and inspired a second generation of painters, however, the landscapes they painted encompassed wilderness areas from as far away as South America and Syria. The themes of the paintings fit so perfectly with the American persona of the time—themes of discovery, exploration, and settlement. And for a growing number of east coast citizens, the appeal came in viewing untamed landscapes and idyllic nature scenes so different from the bustling cities to which they had become accustomed.

Thomas Cole is considered by most to be the father of the Hudson River School, but it was his prize pupil, Frederic Edwin Church, who became a true celebrity. Some of the finest works from the Hudson River School were painted between 1855 and 1875, and Church’s works constituted the majority. His paintings are truly stunning. I must admit that I fell in love with them myself. Here are a few of my favorites:

Niagra Falls (1857)

Niagra Falls (1857)

The Natural Bridge - Virginia (1852)

The Natural Bridge – Virginia (1852)

Twilight in the Wilderness (1860)

Twilight in the Wilderness (1860)

You really have to see larger images to do them justice.

In the 20th century, the term luminism was coined to describe this style. It is characterized by attention to detail and the hiding of brush strokes so that nothing distracts from the vision of nature being depicted. Artists in the Hudson River School for the most part believed that nature in the form of the American landscape was a manifestation of God. Therefore they painted highly realistic yet idealized renderings of what they had seen on their travels.

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In Stealing the Preacher, Joanna Robbins’s mother was an art teacher back east who was greatly influenced by the Hudson River School. It is her dedication to this style of art that drives her to leave her safe city life to search out her own wilderness to paint. This, of course, eventually leads her to Texas and the wild man who will become her husband. She passes her love of art on to her daughter. Joanna embraces this passion, though she finds she has a better eye for capturing people than landscapes on her canvases.

What type of art speaks to your heart? I’ve always preferred realistic landscapes that capture the glory of God’s creation. That’s probably why these paintings gripped me so completely. What about you? Do you have a painting or print in your house that you just adore? What painting would you buy if money was no object? I’d love to hear about it.

We have a winner! Candice Valdez will receive the giveaway copy of Stealing the Preacher!

MONA: Thank you, Karen, for this fabulous peek into the art that inspired folks to people the West! We appreciate the Book Giveaway too!

Karen’s Website

Karen on Facebook

Comments 41

  1. My mother is an artist, so while I have some appreciation for art I have none of her talent!
    I also prefer realistic landscapes or still life paintings. My mothers favorite subjects are old barns and the farmlands of our native Michigan. We no longer live there, but if we go home to visit she always takes her camera along and comes back with new inspiration!

    1. Good morning, Patty. Nice to see you here. Thanks for sharing your and your mother’s “art story.” Landscapes are my favorite too. Be sure to add your email address for easy notification. Blessings! Mona

    2. Hi, Patty. I have a couple painting of those wonderful old barns hanging in my house. My mother-in-law painted one of them and a talented lady who used to paint with her is the artist of the second. I just love those rugged buildings surrounded by prairie grass, flowers, or trees. Makes me long to get out and explore the countryside. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I love western art. It brings you that time of life and that makes my heart happy. I also love karens books she is forsure hands down my favorite auther.

    1. Thanks, Mindy. There is something about those pictures that transports us back, isn’t there? I love that feel of escape I get when I look at them. Thanks for stopping by today!

  3. Karen, thank you for the art history education today. While he hasn’t blessed me with the gift of creating it, I too have always preferred realistic landscapes that capture the beauty of God’s creation. My mom is a painter of this type of art and does a beautiful job. I would LOVE two win a copy of your book! So glad there are authors who write books that center around people who place Christ first in their life. Thank you!

  4. I was an art student in college and loved to paint landscapes and old buildings. I won an award for one my old ghost town watercolor paintings.
    I just visited Natural Bridge for my daughter’s birthday. It is that beautiful!
    I can’t think of any painting that I would have to have. But I do love Thomas Kincade’s work.
    Thanks for a great post.
    Campbellamyd at gmail dot com

    1. Hi, Amy. I envy your talent. I can barely draw a stick figure. I guess I’ll stick to drawing word pictures. 🙂 How wonderful that you got to see the Natural Bridge with your daughter. I would love that! I’m a big fan of Thomas Kincaid, too. I particularly like his mountain churches.

  5. Karen, Western art is close to my heart because my mother and both of my grandmas have made their living by selling their own artwork. My mother paints Western art (watercolor) full time. If I had to choose any artwork in the world, I would choose hers and my grandmothers’.
    (Here is my mother’s website: http://www.kathysigleart.com) I hope you’ll check it out. Western wildlife!

    This Christmas my husband gave me one of my grandma’s original watercolor landscapes. I’d been eyeing it for years, and this year he bought it from her. I cried when I opened it. Such a precious gift that I will cherish forever.

    jy.foreman (@) hotmail (dot) com

    1. There is some serious talent in your family, Janette! I went to your mother’s website and was blown away! Gorgeous! Some of my favorites were Bull Elk, High Noon, and Horse Play. Horse Play reminded me of that scene from Man from Snowy River where the wild brumbies are running through the river. Just lovely!

  6. Love anything by Kenneth Wyatt and his daughter, Jill Wyatt. Kenneth does cowboy, western, christian art and Jill does paintings of children that I LOVE!
    Thanks for the chance to win a book!

    1. I googled him, Candice. Exceptional! I love those windmills and horses. Touches my cowboy-loving soul. My oldest son is named Wyatt, not only in honor of Wyatt Earp but my grandmother’s maiden name was Wyatt. Maybe if we go far enough back the family tree, I’ll find a relationship to Kenneth. Do you think he’d give me a family discount? LOL

  7. Thank you Ms. Hodgson for hosting this giveaway!

    And Ms. Witemeyer, I feel like I’m stalking you from blog to blog, haha. I promise I’m not though. 😉 I’m just dead set on winning a copy of this book since I don’t have the money to buy anything except food right now. 😉

    I love art, so this was really interesting to read! I like portraits more than landscapes, however. I love the paintings that tell a story and leave it up to the imagination to fill in the blanks. Norman Rockwell has to be one of my all-time favorites for that reason.

    Again, thank you for the chance to win! 🙂

    [email protected]

    1. Lizzie – So glad your hopping around the blogosphere with me! You can stalk my books any time. 🙂 I first saw Norman Rockwell’s work in a coffee table book at my grandparents’ house, and I loved it. A touch of humor and an emphasis on family and simpler times – what’s not to love? Thanks for dropping by!

    2. Lizzie, it’s my pleasure to feature fabulous authors here, and always fun to give away one of their books. I love that you’re diligently following Karen from blog to blog to win a copy of Stealing the Preacher. The read will be worth it! Blessings to you! Mona

  8. I have been so anxious to read this book by Karen Witemeyer. It looks great! I’m currently reading her book, “To Win Her Heart”, for the first time ever and I have been so blessed by it. I honestly feel like it’s a letter from God to me. This book went a long way in healing some deep wounds I’ve gained over the past few years.

    There is so much in Witemeyers writings that speaks to me. I am looking forward to reading many more of her books!

    1. Jessica – I am so humbled by your comment. I pray every day that God will use my simple stories to touch lives as only he can. You are an answer to that prayer. May God continue to bless you and encourage your soul.

  9. Really enoy books by karen Witemeyer. Love the story, my sister and niece are great artists. Such beautiful talent….people use art as a way to tell their story or just a story. Thanks for the giveaway..please enter me in..

    Linda Ortiz

  10. Just a few miles from my house is the Leanin’ Tree Museum. I don’t know how widespread over the nation their greeting cards are, but we see racks everywhere here in Colorado. The western art on these cards is done by Ed Trumble, Founder and Chairman of Leanin’ Tree, It ranges from comical to dramatic. At the museum, you can view his originals on canvas as well as detailed sculptures. It’s a “must visit” if you’re ever in Boulder. And it’s free admission. http://www.leanintreemuseum.com

    I love getting lost in his paintings. You can almost smell the campfires or feel the cool mountain breeze on your skin. Besides the fact that I love you, Karen, and everything you write, now you’ve given me even more reason to want to read this book! kathleenekovach(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. Hey, Kathy! Love that artwork at the Leanin’ Tree. I’m a sucker for mountains any time anywhere, and love seeing them in western art. Gorgeous! Thanks so much for dropping by. I hope to see you at ACFW this year. Can’t wait!

  11. My grandmother was an artist, she did still-life’s, portraits and landscapes. Her landscapes are my favorite! 🙂

    Thanks for the chance to win!


  12. I worked in a frame shop for three years and
    learned to appreciate so many styles of art. It’s the first thing I look for when I visit someone’s home. And my own home houses art that is far more expensive that any furniture. We may not have a furnished living room, but we have beautiful art!

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