Art and Exploration in the American West and Mexico

What are the connections between exploring new territories and making visual representations of those territories? How do artists relate to the territory's indigenous people? In what ways do mapmakers and artists promote, protect, or displace the cultures and landscapes they portray?


In 1803 the United States bought the territory of Louisiana from France and began a century-long process of western exploration and conquest that would define the nation’s borders and have lasting consequences for its neighbors: American Indians, Mexicans, and Canadians. With the Louisiana Purchase, the United States doubled in size, acquiring an 800,000 square mile region that spanned from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from New Orleans to Canada. At the time, Europeans and Americans knew little about the region, which was home to thousands of American Indians as well as a small number of European traders. The U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, appointed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead an expedition to map the territory and discover who lived there and what natural resources the region had to offer. Their efforts paved the way for the nation’s westward expansion. By mid-century, the United States would go to war with Mexico to acquire the region that would become Texas, California, and the Southwest. It would claim the Oregon Territory in the Northwest from Britain in 1846.

Maps created by the first explorers helped establish national claims to new territories. Later, westward expansion led to the development of distinctively American forms of visual art.

Visual representations, such as maps, drawings, and paintings, played an important role in the process of westward expansion. Maps created by the first explorers helped establish national claims to new territories by informing the government of routes and natural formations as well as the locations of Indian tribes. Maps also provided essential information to any settlers who hoped to establish themselves in the new territory. Furthermore, westward expansion facilitated the development of distinctively American forms of visual art. As artists followed explorers westward, they created stunning drawings and paintings of the vast wilderness landscapes and the indigenous people whom they encountered—landscapes and people who would be fundamentally altered by the very forces that brought the artists to them. The encounter with the West transformed nineteenth-century American art and enabled the development of new forms of landscape painting and portraiture. At the same time, artists’ representations informed public perceptions of the people and natural environment of the West and served to draw visitors to a region that, by the end of the century, was no longer a wild frontier—it had become, instead, a tourist attraction.

The following collection of documents offers four case studies of the exploration and visual art, broadly defined, of nineteenth-century America and Mexico, from the first expeditions up the Missouri River, to the development of everyday life along the Mississippi, to the discovery of Yellowstone and the establishment of the national park, to representations of the people and natural resources of Mexico.

Please consider the following questions as you review the documents

  • What are the connections between art and exploration, or between exploring new territories and making visual representations of the landscape and people of those territories?
  • What role do visual representations play in the acquisition of territory? How do mapmakers and artists help to secure the nation’s claim to new land?
  • What are artists’ relationships to the land’s existing inhabitants? In what ways do artists commemorate, preserve, protect, or displace the cultures and landscapes they portray?
  • How are visual and textual representations related to each other? Do maps, drawings, and paintings support or contradict written accounts of the same regions and peoples?

Exploring the Missouri River

Meriwether Lewis, A Map of Lewis and Clark’s Route (1814)

President Thomas Jefferson began planning an American expedition to find the source of the Missouri River in 1802. His goals were to open a route to the Pacific, to expand American participation in the fur trade, and to locate farmland. The purchase of the Louisiana Territory the following year made the project a priority. The U.S. Army was responsible for maintaining order in the frontier areas. So Jefferson appointed two Army captains, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to lead a 33-person expedition, which he named the Corps of Discovery. They departed from St. Louis in May 1804, traveled all the way to the Oregon coast, and returned in August 1806, a journey of over 8,000 miles. The expedition created the first comprehensive maps of the area. Earlier maps are almost completely blank between the Mississippi and the West Coast, showing just a small part of the Missouri River and a spare indication of the Rockies. Everything west of Fort Mandan was unknown to the explorers.

Selection: Extract from a letter from Meriwether Lewis to President Thomas Jefferson, April 17, 1805 (1814).

In addition to the two captains and the 26 Army recruits, the expedition officially included five other people who made the journey from Fort Mandan to the Pacific and back: York, an African American man who was Clark’s slave; a Mandan Indian man; two French Canadian fur traders and the Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, of one of them. (Sacagawea brought with her an infant son, nicknamed Pomp.) The French Canadian and Indian members were meant to act as interpreters and to aid in negotiations with tribes.

Questions to Consider

  1. In his letter to Jefferson, what information does Lewis provide about the members of the expedition and their roles?
  2. As far as you can tell from this letter, why does Lewis maintain contact with the War Department, which operated and maintained the army? What does the department’s involvement tell us about the purpose and management of the expedition?
  3. What do you learn about the management and logistics of the expedition from this letter? What are Lewis’ and Jefferson’s concerns?
  4. What information does the map include? How does it portray the region?

Portraying American Indians of the West

Lewis and Clark encountered almost 50 Indian tribes on their journey and observed a wide range of cultures and customs, from the agrarian Mandan who raised corn and lived in earth lodges to the nomadic Sioux who hunted buffalo and slept in tepees. Three decades later, the artist George Catlin accompanied Clark on a diplomatic mission up the Mississippi River into Indian Territory. From there, Catlin traveled up the Missouri, on a mission to record the customs of every tribe he encountered. His painting, Ball-Play Dance, portrays Choctaw Indians near present-day Oklahoma. They engage in dancing and singing to solicit the aid of the Great Spirit before a game of lacrosse, itself an important and elaborate ceremony that could determine individuals’ status within the tribe.

Selection: George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, title page and frontispiece, 1-3, 6-9 (1842).

Swiss painter, Karl Bodmer ventured up the Missouri in 1834 in the company of the German Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied. Bodmer created vivid paintings of the landscape and people he observed. His painting of the bison hunt portrays an essential activity of the Plains tribes in the nineteenth century. The bison’s body provided not only food, but also material for tents, clothing, and tools. Like Catlin, Bodmer also produced numerous portraits of individuals from the tribes he encountered. Both artists sought to create detailed, accurate representations of their subjects for a white American and European audience.

Karl Bodmer, Indians Hunting the Bison (1836)

Questions to Consider

  1. What was Catlin’s motive in traveling up the Missouri and painting and drawing the American Indians that he met? What does he mean when he writes that Western Indians show “Man, in the simplicity and loftiness of his Nature”? In your opinion, does Catlin idealize American Indians or offer an appropriate contrast between Native and European-American cultures? How do you assess Catlin’s project of preserving what he sees as dying and disappearing cultures?
  2. Describe the activities in the ball-play dance that Catlin portrays. How are the figures arranged? How are they positioned in relation to the landscape? What does the artist’s perspective suggest about relationships between people and the natural environment?
  3. How does Bodmer convey the experience of the bison hunt? What activities does the hunt entail? What emotions or ideas do the figures express?
  4. Examine Bodmer’s portraits of the women from the Snake and Cree tribes and of Wahk-ta-Ge-Li, the Sioux warrior. Which adjectives would you use to describe these figures? How does Bodmer portray Native Americans for his imagined white American and European audience? What do the portraits convey about differences between tribes and between women’s and men’s roles?

Commerce and Life on the Western Rivers

These paintings by Alfred Thompson Bricher and George Caleb Bingham portray everyday life along the Mississippi and lower Missouri Rivers in the 1850s and ‘60s. Bricher came from New Hampshire, but traveled west in the summer of 1866. In this painting, he portrays a sidewheeler, a wooden hull packet boat with a paddle wheel on each side, which was owned by the Northwestern Union Packet Company, a freight shipping firm. As the Terra Foundation notes in its interpretative text on the painting, “Sidewheelers were distinctive to the Mississippi, the Ohio, and other western waterways. Bricher’s portrait of this particular vessel lends an air of authenticity to his image of a region remote from the traditional landscape painting grounds of the American northeast.”

Alfred Thompson Bricher, The Sidewheeler “The City of St. Paul” on the Mississippi River, Dubuque, Iowa (1872)

Bingham grew up in a Missouri River town and was “one of the first major American artists to hail from America’s frontier, and the first to make the West the subject of his art.” This scene portrays life on the Missouri not as it was in 1877, but as it had been two or three decades earlier, when barges and flatboats dominated the river. By the late 1870s, barges had been replaced by steamships and trains had displaced waterways as the primary means of transporting freight.

George Caleb Bingham, The Jolly Flatboatmen (1877)

Both Bricher and Bingham were associated with the mid-nineteenth-century Hudson River School, whose painters portrayed American wilderness landscapes. Both employed a style now known as luminism in which “broad expanses of still water and sky” appear in “a pervasive, glowing light” and brushstrokes are rendered almost invisible.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe these scenes of everyday life along the rivers. What activities are people engaged in? What does the pace of life seem like?
  2. Discuss the composition of each painting. How are human figures positioned within the landscape? How do Bricher and Bingham use light in these scenes? What is the atmosphere conveyed by each painting?
  3. In what ways might these scenes differ from contemporary representations of East Coast waterways? How do the paintings convey landscapes or experiences specifically associated with the West?

Promoting Yellowstone

In 1869 Charles W. Cook, David E. Folsom, and William Peterson explored the headwaters of the Yellowstone River in the Montana Territory (now Wyoming). The region had only just begun to attract the attention of officials of the territory and the Northern Pacific Railroad. The following year, Cook published a vivid account of “the awful grandeur and sublimity” of this landscape of canyons, waterfalls, and hot springs, calling it “a scene of transcendent beauty, which has been viewed by but few white men.” As Cook predicted, the region quickly attracted wider notice. In 1871, Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden directed a government survey of the area, accompanied by the artist Thomas Moran, as well as scientists, a topographer, and others. Moran was an English-born, American painter associated with the Hudson River School and its attention to the American wilderness landscape. Hayden’s advocacy along with Moran’s vivid sketches of Yellowstone contributed to the U.S. Congress’ decision to declare the area the first national park in 1871. Officials with the Northern Pacific Railroad financed the construction of a hotel near the park’s entrance, accessible primarily by their rail line, which opened in 1884. The Northern Pacific published Alice’s Adventures in the New Wonderland that same year. The brochure included a long letter written by a fictional English tourist, named after the heroine of Lewis Carroll’s children’s book. On the reverse, the brochure presented a detailed, topographic map of the park by two of the railroad’s civil engineers, Carl J. Hals and Arvid Rydstrom.

Selection: Carl J. Hals and Arvid Rydstrom, Alice’s Adventures in the New Wonderland and Map of the Yellowstone National Park (1884).

Questions to Consider

  1. Examine the two Moran paintings of Yellowstone. How does the landscape appear? How does Moran use chiaroscuro, or the contrast of light and dark within the paintings?
  2. Why does Moran include human figures in the paintings? What are they doing? What is their relationship to the landscape? How do these images compare to the paintings of American Indians and of boaters along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, seen earlier in this collection?
  3. Consider the cover and excerpt of Alice’s Adventures in the New Wonderland. Why do you think the Northern Pacific Railroad chose to promote Yellowstone in this way? Why would their writers create a fictional English heroine, writing an intimate letter to a friend, to portray a region otherwise associated with rugged frontiersmen?
  4. Examine Hals and Rydstrom’s map of the park. What information does it include? Why would it be of use or interest to a tourist?
  5. Consider the relationship between the two sides of the Wonderland brochure. Is the content of each side complementary or at odds with the other?

Representing Mexico

Mexican geographer and cartographer Antonio García Cubas dedicated his life to representing the distinctive land and cultures of nineteenth-century Mexico. In 1857, he produced the first map of the nation following its War of Independence from Spain (1810–1821). In subsequent decades, he produced atlases, portraits, and texts promoting ideas of Mexican national character and identity. In The Republic of Mexico in 1876, García Cubas includes an ethnographic account of the Mexican people, identifying three primary groups: whites, or Spanish descendants; mestizos, or people of mixed European and American Indian ancestry; and full Indians. While the first two groups thrive, he writes, the last is dying out. García Cubas’ Atlas pintoresco é historico de los estados unidos mexicanos, or “Picturesque and Historical Atlas of the United Mexican States,” appeared the following decade. The atlas includes large maps illustrating Mexico’s archeological sites and colonial history as well as its topography, political structure, schools, ethnography, rivers, minerals, and agriculture. Bordering each map are vividly colored scenes relating to the map’s theme. While García Cubas’ work does not concern exploration in the sense of discovering new lands, it addresses the idea of exploration in a metaphorical sense. He investigates—and helps to cement—the identity of a newly formed nation through visual and textual representations of the natural and human landscape.

Selection: Antonio García Cubas, The Republic of Mexico in 1876: A Political and Ethnographical Division of the Population, Character, Habits, Costumes and Vocations of Its Inhabitants, plate opposite 16, 16, plate opposite 20, 20, plate opposite 90, 90 (1876).

Questions to Consider

  1. How does García Cubas characterize each of the three groups—whites, mestizos, and Indians (in this excerpt, specifically, the Tarasca nation)—that he identifies as making up Mexican society? How does he visually portray each group?
  2. Examine the Carta agricola. How does the map convey Mexico’s agricultural production? How do Mexico’s landscape and people appear in the surrounding images?
  3. How do the images and text work to define Mexican national identity?
Antonio García Cubas, Carta agricola [Agricultural Map], detail (1885)

Selected Sources

Magali M. Carrera. Traveling from New Spain to Mexico: Mapping Practices of Nineteenth-Century Mexico. 2011.

Michael P. Conzen and Diane Dillon. Mapping Manifest Destiny: Chicago and the American West. 2007.

Bernard DeVoto, ed. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. 1953.

PBS. Lewis and Clark.

Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Terra Foundation for American Art.