Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Quarterly 6:1 (Winter 1986). Copyright © 1986 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


The romantic movement in America, like that in Europe, was characterized by fondness for the exotic and observation of nature. So the Great Plains and the peoples who lived there were favored topics of artists and writers from the mid-1820s through the 1850s. However, at its height the American romantic movement was challenged by a subtle but persistent search for realism. The distinctions between romanticism and realism in belles lettres were not always recognized, since early visual depictions of the plains were seen primarily as ethnographic material, records of an unknown land and the exotic beings who lived there. The expressly documentary aims of many of the artists who joined western expeditions are well known, of course. In keeping with the descriptive nature of such missions, many of these artists kept written as well as visual records of their experiences. They shared the nineteenth-century penchant for travel literature of all sorts. Yet despite the documentary aims and achievements of the artists who first made the plains visible to eastern and European audiences, their mission was equally an imaginative, aesthetic one. They tried to depict their subjects in an aesthetically pleasing manner, consistent with inherited late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century artistic conventions. The two aims were not always mutually exclusive, as can be seen by a comparative study of the pictures and prose left by George Catlin, Paul Kane, and Alfred Jacob Miller. We analyze the tension within each painter's art and writing in order to understand the confrontation between an inculcated European aesthetic and what William Goetzmann calls a "new experience of nature."