His name may not be as recognizable as his paintings, but Charles Deas was one Americas earliest and most influential artists. His life and work is the subject of Charles Deas and 1840s America, a retrospective and solo show that will open Saturday at the Denver Art Museum.
Deas work influenced Americans image of the Wild West during the 1840s, and his work continues to inspire artists today. Organized by the Denver Art Museum and guest curator Carol Clark, professor of art history and American studies at Amherst College, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue reconstructs Deas life and career, reflecting years of original scholarship. It includes many works that have not been publicly displayed for 150 years, including 12 of his most important pieces. The exhibition features 30 paintings and nine works on paper. Denver is the only venue for the exhibition, which will be on view through Nov. 28.
Deas work helped shape Americans perception of their country during the 1840s, the most intense period of westward expansion and emigration in our history, said Joan Carpenter Troccoli, senior scholar at the Denver Art Museums Petrie Institute of Western American Art , or PIWAA, and co-curator of the exhibition. Troccoli and the Petrie Institute staff worked closely with Clark to organize this exhibition and publish its catalogue.
His image of the fur trapper created a sensation in New York. This fur trapper was a source of national pride and bridged the gap between the old West and the new frontier.
Born in Philadelphia on Dec. 22, 1818, Deas was the youngest child of a family prominent during the colonial and revolutionary periods. Little is known about his childhood except that his artistic inclinations were apparent early on. By 1837, Deas was living in New York City and receiving formal training in art. Following studies at the National Academy of Design, Deas emerged in the mid-1830s as a portraitist and painter of eastern genre and literary subjects, for which he received moderate but favorable critical attention. Artistic patronage in New York City virtually disappeared during an economic downturn, and Deas decided to seek his fortune in the West. In 1840, he arrived at Fort Crawford, Wis., where his brother was stationed on the Mississippi River. While based there, Deas came into contact with Sioux, Winnebago and other Native American communities.
By the fall of 1841, Deas had established a studio in St. Louis, Mo., where he lived until 1847. The fur trade, which had been the dominant industry in St. Louis, was in decline in the 1840s, but it provided Deas with subjects for some of his most important paintings. In Deas hands, the fur trapper, who had been depicted by earlier western painters as humble and rustic, was transformed into a national hero.
Deas influence on other artists, including major figures such as William Ranney and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, was great, but his career, terminated by his admission to a mental asylum at the age of 29, was tragically short. He left no direct descendants to cultivate his reputation and track the location of his pictures. Though Deas had been one of the most renowned painters of the American West during the 1840s, by the end of the 19th century he had fallen into obscurity, and most of his works had disappeared from public view.
The exhibition, presented chronologically, will be on view in the Denver Art Museums Gates Western Gallery, located on the second level of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building. The exhibition is accompanied by a definitive book, Charles Deas and 1840s America, containing biographical and interpretive essays as well as the first catalogue raisonné of the artists work.
The Denver Art Museum is located on 13th Avenue between Broadway and Bannock Streets in downtown Denver. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday and is closed on Mondays.