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Madonnas of the Prairie: Depictions of Women in the American West

In the mid-nineteenth century artists depicted women as victims, passive observers, or merely passengers in the settlement of the American West. Some artists chose to portray Western women in the guise of a “Madonna” figure, based on Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the Virgin Mary. Conversely, Western artists portrayed American Indian women more honestly, revealing the harshness of their lives of unceasing toil. Others described women in the West as beautiful objects to be admired, with no true role to play except to stand in the doorway or by the corral gate watching their men ride away. 

Wild West shows in the 1880s turned this view on its ear by including women trick riders and shootists and promoted these women using painted posters. By the turn of the 20th century, and especially due to the groundswell of Western fiction, women began to be depicted in much more active roles: plowing fields, picking cotton, riding bucking horses, herding cattle, holding outlaws at bay, and even dragging the wounded to safety under fire, all while also taking care of the children and home.

Simultaneously, advertisers and commercial artists invented the “cow-boy girl,” a stereotypical depiction of a “rough and ready” outdoorsy female—replete with sidearm—to sell male-oreinted products, ammunition, tobacco products, and coffee, for example. The “cow-boy girl” eventually evolved into Western pin-up girls during the 1950s, when television Westerns dominated the small screen. During the ‘teens, women competed in all rodeo events and were usually the stars of early rodeo through the 1920s. 

In the 1920s the cult of the “Pioneer Mother” resulted in an international competition for an heroic bronze installed at Ponca City, Oklahoma.  During the Depression and the subsequent “official” New Deal-inspired/encouraged Regionalism, Western artists—including painters, sculptors, and photographers--depicted the nobility and steadfastness of farm women in particular.  

“Madonnas of the Prairie” will examine these type depictions juxtaposed with images of Western women as protagonists: Using the PPHM permanent collection as the foundation, the exhibition will draw on public and private collections to flesh out the offerings of painters, photographers, and sculptors across the spectrum. Artists represented will include Dorothea Lange, Beulah Schiller Ayars, H. D. Bugbee, W. Herbert Dunton, Ben Carlton Mead, Gerald Cassidy, W. H. D. Koerner, Remington Schuyler, Gina Knee, Herbert Morton Stoops, Margaret Wright Tupper, P. V. E. Ivory, Olin Travis, Jerry Bywaters, and many, many other artists.

This program is made possible in part by a grant from Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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