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Paintings give Easterners first view of Southwest

November 03, 2008

Most Easterners in 1848 had no idea what the Southwest was like. But, as the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

“Show them a saguaro cactus and they will come,” might have been the reasoning of artists who participated in the U.S.-Mexico Boundary Survey, led by literary scholar and artist John Russell Bartlett. The artists hoped that their paintings and drawings of the desert landscape of the Southwest would lure Easterners westward to settle the land.

Gray Sweeney, professor of art history in the Herberger College of the Arts, discussed the role of art in the settling of the Southwest when he gave the keynote address at the annual Gila River Festival in Silver City, N.M., in September.

Sweeney titled his talk “Dreams of Angels and Dust Storms: An Evening on the Rio Gila in 1848.”

Sweeney discussed works by Bartlett, Henry Cheever Pratt and Seth Eastman, focusing on the headwaters of the Rio Gila and its tributaries in Arizona as seen in the region’s first paintings.

The highlight of the evening was viewing works by Boston artist Pratt, which represented the Phoenix, Arizona, area as it looked in the mid-1850s.

Pratt’s paintings gave East Coast audiences their first glimpse of the giant saguaro, the lower Gila River and the Spanish Missions at Tumacácori, San Xavier del Bac and Casa Grande, and other historic places.

After the lecture, Sweeney told Cat Stailey, outreach coordinator for the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance, that he became interested in the art of the border surveys when he began graduate work for his doctoral degree.

Sweeney grew up in New Mexico, and graduated from Gallup High School and the University of New Mexico.

“During my high school days my family traveled each summer to one of the national parks or national forests where we camped and enjoyed the scenery and local history,” Sweeney said.

“When I began my graduate work, I realized that the history of how these parks and historic sites came into existence was a compelling story that had never been recounted.”

After he began teaching at ASU in the mid-1980s, he “discerned that there were fascinating histories of art on the early Southwestern frontier, and in particular, the little-known history of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary Survey and its artists John Russell Bartlett and Henry Cheever Pratt.”

Sweeney’s work led to an exhibit and catalogue at the Albuquerque Museum of Art in 1996, titled “Drawing the Boderline: Artist-Explorers of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary Survey.”

Sweeney is a nationally known expert on the art of the American West, the Hudson River School, and American painting in the 19th century.