Great Plains Studies, Center for

 

Date of this Version

Summer 2007

Citation

Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer 2007, pp. 177-92.

Comments

Copyright 2007 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Abstract

In May of 1876 three men took a private Santa Fe railroad car from Topeka, Kansas, ro the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. One was the Santa Fe land commissioner and the director of the railroad's exhibit, another was secretary of state for the Kansas Board of Agriculture. The third was a self-trained artist in the railroad's employ, and the designer of both the Kansas and Santa Fe exhibits. Fifty-one year old Henry Worrall lifted himself from a boyhood in the back streets of Liverpool to a comfortable life, and this journey in a company car, through artistic endeavors that helped support mainstream social and political ideology. Worrall's art represented the views of the ruling stratum, and as Rhys Jones recently demonstrated in the case of a medieval Welsh biography, aimed to promote and sustain existing power relationships.

Today it is a truism that national memory is really the past continuously reinterpreted through the present. In this article I will argue for the influence of the past over the present, and that in the American West of the nineteenth century, certain artists were able to shape through their paintings and sketches the national memory of future generations. The importance of the graphic image was clearly understood by American railroad companies of the time, some of which laid thousands of miles of track across the frontier, based on the promised receipt of millions of acres in federal land grants. On the Kansas frontier of the 1870s, for example, one-sixth of all lands were in the hands of the railroads. Then, as now, new migrants moved to a specific location, at least in part, on the basis of its image. By depicting scenes that promised wealth and happiness, railroad companies and others with land to sell used effective forms of propaganda, creating specific visual images to encourage settlement. The artists employed to make the pictures have left us with what must be considered a biased interpretation of the nineteenth-century American West. By producing very favorable images of the American West, railroad artists such as Henry Worrall not only helped their employers sell land to farmers and others in the short term but also contributed to a longerlasting impression of what nineteenth-century America was really like.

Henry Worrall (1825-1902) was considered the "first artist of Kansas" by his contemporaries but has largely been forgotten today. Worrall was called "Kansas' first artist and pioneer decorator" in Blackmar's 1912 Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Embracing Events, Institutions, Industries, Counties, Towns, Prominent Persons, etc. The Kansas University chemist and historian Robert Taft, writing in 1946, referred to him as "the only Kansas artist in the period 'under consideration to achieve recognition on anything approaching a national scale for his portrayal of Kansas life." Worrall helped persuade farmers to buy railroad land in Kansas, through drawings that appeared to be illustrations of genuine frontier farming and new settlement scenes, but which were acknowledged even at the time to present the Kansas frontier through rose-colored glasses. On a broader scale, Worrall's pictures also helped create or at least reinforce some of the common stereotypes about the American frontier and the characteristics and identities of its inhabitants. These pictures serve as important historical and geographical documents, since they convey messages that transcend surface reality, as Worrall absorbed the ambitions and attitudes of his time and then committed many of those ambitions and attitudes to paper. Worrall mirrored established taste, and his art presented a simplistic and yet compelling narrative.