August 18, 2013

"'Westward'... a symbolical presentation of the Pioneers led by the spirits of Civilization and Enlightenment to the conquest by cultivation of the Great West."

The painter Edwin H. Blashfield explains his painting, which holds a place of honor in the Grand Stairway of the Iowa state capitol building, which we visited yesterday. I'm amazed at the celestial delicacy of females...

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That's not the way I'd pictured pioneers, and these lovely ladies seem mismatched to the more stereotypically pioneer males:


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But this is "a symbolical presentation," and so these women represent the ideals that animated the pioneers — as imagined by an artist in 1905. The male figures seem more like the fleshly people who traveled westward, while the female figures are the lofty spirits that propelled them. And then there are the canine spirits. No one could think pioneers had dogs like that. We squinted at this painting for some time, looking for the third dog, some white puffbull of a Bichon Frise or some such thing. It must be there, in those whitish daubings at the end of the lady's leash...

"They had their dogs on a leash?" Meade asks sarcastically.

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But no, that's not a leash. She's carrying a stick. I read more of Blashfield's quote (PDF) and it forces me to disengage from the center of the painting where the refined/enervated females and their dogs had held my eyes:
"Considered pictorially, the canvass shows a ‘Prairie Schooner’ drawn by oxen across the prairie. The family ride upon the wagon or walk at its side. Behind them, and seen through the growth of stalks at the right, come crowding the other pioneers and ‘later men.’ In the air and before the wagon, are floating four female figures; one holds the shield with the arms of the state of Iowa upon it; one holds a book symbolizing Enlightenment; two others carry a basket and scatter the seeds which are symbolical of the change from wilderness to ploughed fields and gardens that shall come over the prairie. Behind the wagon, and also floating in the air, two female figures hold, respectively, a model of a stationary steam engine and of an electric dynamo to suggest the forces which come with the ‘later men.’”
Ah! What later men we all are!

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10 comments:

Ann Althouse said...

Note: Blashfield did the painting "Resources of Wisconsin" which has the pride of place in the Wisconsin Capitol, inside the dome.

Bob Ellison said...

I'm an art ignoramus, but the "symbolical presentation" (shouldn't that be "symbolic?") notion makes sense to me.

I play the piano, and once my sister complimented my playing a slow, sad tune by saying that it surprised her that I could present such emotion even though I have been blessed with advantages in life.

That's what artists do, isn't it? They interpret and sometimes make up emotions that they don't have themselves. I think of Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul, a work of fiction that comes across as biography.

hawkeyedjb said...

The official Iowa State Seal is one of the most interesting (and potentially painful): it features, among other things, a "citizen soldier with a plow in his rear."

The Capitol is one of the most beautiful anywhere.

David said...

Women as angels. Houses of government as temples.

Ah, the past.

Terry said...

In A.B. Guthrie's classic Western novels ("The Way West", "The Big Sky"), the Indians were skeptical that were such a thing as white women. All they knew were white traders, white mountain men, and white soldiers.

Paddy O said...

The show Parks and Recreation occasionally features the murals in its city hall. Very much in the style shown.

traditionalguy said...

The first settler farmers came as family. The man served as the Guardian that protected the women who in turn served as the civilized and educated part of the family for the benefit of the man and the children. It worked out beautifully.

IMO that isalso why the Ivy League types despised the men from the farm cultures. They are less educated.

And that template could be extended as well to The Professor and her noble farmer Guardian type named Meade.





William said...

The women have a kind of pre-Raphaelite, heroic look to them, but, being Midwesterners, their hair is tightly permed.....White people in heroic poses without a scintilla of irony. To think that that happened only a hundred years ago.

Kirk Parker said...

When I think of what my ancestors did and the conditions they did it under (e.g. my great-grandfather served in the Iowa Volunteer Cavalry, then moved gradually across the country until reaching Washington State, where my grandmother--his youngest--was born), it seems pretty heroic, or at least rugged, compared to our physically-easy lives.

George Cefil said...

There's a Blashfield in the South Dakota Capitol, too, but no one is allowed to see it. "Spirit of the West" was deemed too politically incorrect because it shows white pioneers stepping on Native Americans, so it was walled over.

http://www.state.sd.us/boa/CapitolTour/blashfield.htm