New Perspectives on THE WEST
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Images of the West

Grade level: 7-12

This lesson explores several of the themes in the PBS video The West by comparing the works of artists and photographers who documented and interpreted its vast, uncharted landscapes and its native and emigrant inhabitants during much of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. At the end of their viewing and research, students will be able to analyze how artists and photographers (whose work influenced both westward migration and public opinion) have contributed to the myth of the West.

Estimated Time
Necessary Materials
Background Information
Teaching Procedure
Assessment Recommendations
Extension/Adaptation Ideas
Recommended Resources
Relevant National Standards


Students will:

  • analyze the influence of paintings and photographs upon public attitudes towards western lands and the native populations,
  • evaluate images as historical documents, and understand how the ideas of "a promised land," "Manifest Destiny" and "the noble savage"
  • became part of the visual iconography of the West.

Estimated Time
Depending upon time allotted for research, between 3 and 6 50-minute class periods.

Necessary Materials

  • Computers with Internet access
  • Archival photographs and illustrations by various artists (including Edward Curtis, Matthew Brady, and others) located in The West, Archives
  • A color printer
  • A copy of the PBS video The West: Episodes 1, 3, 5, 6 and 8
  • A selection of books from the Recommended Resources
  • Student notebooks to serve as logs or journals
  • Art materials such as paper, markers, tag or corrugated board for displays
  • Optional: A scanner, Hyperstudio software

Background Information
Students will view the works and read the accounts of such painters as George Catlin (1796-1872), Albert Bierstadt (1830-1872), Thomas Moran (1837-1870), and Frederic Remington (1861-1909). The paintings of Bierstadt and Moran, and the documentary photographers influenced early conservation policy as well as the concepts of "Manifest Destiny" and an era of progress. Remington's work glorifies the cowboys and soldiers and demonizes the Indians, justifying their increasing elimination from the actual territories of the West. Although he traveled in the West and served as magazine correspondent and illustrator, his most popular paintings were rendered in a studio and relied upon posed models and props.

Students will also compare and contrast the viewpoints of those artists with the work of pioneers of western photography, among them, the early daguerreo-typists (who went west to photograph the gold rush), adventurers and entrepreneurs. They will consider the work of Timothy O'Sullivan (1840-1882), who pioneered the use of large glass plate negatives while traveling the wilderness of the Yosemite area on US Government surveys, and Carleton Watkins (1829-1919), who experimented with panoramic and stereographic views of the mountains and plains. Carleton Watkins' dramatic views of Yosemite persuaded Abraham Lincoln to place the region off limits to further exploitation.

Students will also view the dramatic portraits of Native Americans made by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), at the end of the era of expansion and consider whether, as some later anthropologists have asserted, he falsified or distorted aspects of the Indians' lives and cultures. Several of these artists and photographers were familiar with each other's work and may have been influenced one another. They often followed in each other's footsteps as they pioneered their artistic documentation of the terrain of the West.

Written diaries and commentaries by many of the above artists are available to supplement their pictorial works and should be included as documentation wherever possible. Teachers may find it useful to preview specified Web sites and video segments before assigning activities for this lesson.

The following terms will help to review student understanding of themes mentioned in the video and in the material for research.

  • Daguerreotype
    an early photographic process named for its inventor Louis Daguerre (1789-1851) with the image made on a light-sensitive silver-coated metallic plate. It was first introduced in America by Samuel F.B.Morse in 1839.

  • Manifest Destiny
    the nineteenth-century doctrine that the U.S. had the right and duty to expand throughout the North American continent. The term was first used by editor John O'Sullivan in 1845, and was taken up by Congress in the debate over the Oregon boundary dispute in 1846.

  • Noble Savage
    a portrayal of the Native American as embodying the virtues of wilderness life untouched by civilization. The Indian was thought to be a primitive, enlightened, nevertheless, by his intuition and closeness to nature.

  • Panorama
    a picture or series of pictures representing a continuous scene. Panoramic paintings and photographs offered popular public exhibitions of Western vistas during the 19th century.

  • Romanticism
    an artistic and intellectual movement characterized by a heightened interest in nature. It emphasized individual expression of emotion and imagination.

  • Stereograph
    two superimposed stereoscopic images designed to give a 3-dimensional effect through special viewing lenses. Stereopticon viewers and images were a popular home entertainment from the 1860s on.

Teaching Procedure
Activity 1

  1. Before viewing segments of the video or doing any Internet research, students should list what remnants of the myth of the American West remain in our culture today. Have students chart the myth, its sources in contemporary life, and its imagery. Ask them to think of modern product brand names, advertising art, sports teams, films, articles of clothing. Ask them to locate and find iconic examples in current print media to bring in and display. Have them share their lists and discuss how these symbols of the past have become both stereotypes and ideals to people of this nation.

    You might ask some students to research the buffalo nickel, a coin issued in 1913 and produced until 1938, the obverse of which is the profile of a Native American. They might also be asked to investigate what stamps have been issued by the United States Post Office to celebrate episodes and heroes of the Westward Expansion. These both could serve as extra credit assignments. They should attempt to find out the sponsorship, artists, and occasions for which these were created. They might also be asked to research the peace medals issued in Washington, D.C., to tribal leaders and which figure prominently as adornment in some of the Catlin paintings and Curtis photographs.

  2. Show the beginnings of several opening segments of episodes of The West, preferably from the Episode 1, "The People" (the beginning to approximately 10:24,) Episode 3, "Speck of the Future" (the first 15 minutes), and Episode 5, "The Grandest Enterprise Under God" (the beginning to approximately 5:20). You may stop the tapes after the title of each episode appears, or you may continue to point suggested. Play at least one of these without the sound track.

    Questions might include:

    • What point of view, if any, is discernible from the images chosen for introducing the subject matter?
    • What impression do students get from the panoramic vistas of the natural landscape?
    • What impressions do the photographic stills convey?
    • How does listening alter the experience of viewing?

  3. Have students write their answers in their log books or journals. They will use these later when they analyze impressions gleaned from the works they are researching for this assignment. As a possible spin-off, you may want to have students write a poem or five-minute imagistic description of the pieces of film they have just seen. If you have time, select several of these to be shared and discussed.

Activity 2

  1. Divide students into research groups to investigate the work of one of the artists or photographers.

    Artists include:

    • George Catlin
    • Albert Bierstad
    • Thomas Moran
    • Frederic Remington
    • Timothy O'Sullivan
    • Carleton Watkins
    • Edward S. Curtis

    See Recommended Resources below for starting points with the research. Those assigned to research the anonymous daguerro-typists will do well to consult The Daguerreotype in America by Beaumont Newhall among other sources available.

  2. Each group will be responsible for creating a map of the travels of the assigned artists or photographers to accompany their exhibition. Some students will enjoy making pictorial maps, using images similar to those of the artists' works.

    The students will become curators of an exhibit showcasing their artist's work and will create a gallery presentation that includes their map, captions for the illustrations they have reproduced, and a brief biography. They should also select, wherever possible, quotations from the artist's own words to illuminate the exhibition.

  3. One member of each group should be assigned to monitor PBS videos of The West to locate pertinent sections to run to accompany the chronology of the work presented.

    • For example, see Episode 2, "Empire Upon the Trails" (1:56 to 7:57) Mountain Men to Joe Meeks. The segment includes color footage of the hot springs at Yellowstone. These would be useful for comparisons with the paintings of Bierstadt and Moran. Episode 3, "The Speck of the Future" (1:18-16:9)and Episode 7, Archives offer daguerreotype portraits of William Swain and his family (as well as portraits of other Gold Rush migrants to California). Why was it so important to them to have their "likenesses" taken? Students might also investigate the entrepreneurship of the photographers who used their cameras instead of picks and shovels to seek fortune in the west.

    • Episode 6, "Fight No More Forever" (6:30 to 18:34) and Episode 6, Archives, contain materials about the abrogation of treaties leading to the climactic Battle of Little Bighorn. This segment would work with the paintings and bronzes of Frederic Remington as well as with the photographs taken by E. S. Curtis and might refer, as well, to the Matthew Brady photographs taken of George A. Custer that ultimately added to his mythic status. (This Portrait of Custer is a good example.)

    • Episode 8, "One Sky Above Us" (19:49 to 25:55), includes a section ("Butte") on how mining became mechanized and industrialized, devastating the landscape. The changes in landscape of Butte, Montana are described and shown. This segment would tie in with Bierstadt and Moran landscapes that simply painted out the changes, and would also relate to O'Sullivan's astonishing photo taken from 900 feet deep in a Virginia City mine shaft.

    Students should be encouraged to find examples of their own to parallel their gallery tours.

  4. Using their Web sites, each group should locate and select images. Those assigned to George Catlin should examine his paintings of the Nez Perce, Mandan and Lakota Sioux, and of buffalo hunts, and read Letters 2 and 3 of his accounts of his travels among the tribes. Do his pictures conform to common stereotypes of the Indians as described by members of the government and army officers who are quoted in the PBS video?

    Students working with the photos of Edward Curtis should also read his account of the "Demise of the Buffalo" (from The North American Indian, Vol.III) and compare it with Episode 5, "The Grandest Enterprise Under God," especially the segments, "Walking Gold" (0:29:00-0:34:45) and "A Wound in the Heart (1:13:10-1:23:00).

  5. Those using the landscapes of Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt and the photos of Tim O'Sullivan and Carleton Watkins, students should write down their own first impressions of the works in their logs. Why did these pictures arouse such excitement in the East? Have students find out what personal risks the photographers, in particular, took to obtain their images. What practical purposes were they meant to serve?

Activity 3

  1. In their log/journal books each student should list each illustration by title, artist and date, if known. They should, in their own words, describe the content of the work. If the location known, it should be recorded on the group's map.

  2. Students should also select at least one work to write about creatively. They might write:
    • a monologue in the persona of a Native American or settler depicted in the art and photography
    • an invocation to the spirits of the land in the style of a Native American chant or legend (PBS Video Episode 1,14:45 and following, or Episode 5, 1:22, loss of the buffalo and legend about their disappearance)
    • a nature poem based on 19th-century or contemporary models. (Examples may be found in the works of Joaquin Miller, Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Gary Snyder, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sherman Alexie.)

Activity 4

  1. Arrange several class periods for groups to set up and present their "exhibits." You will probably be able to have at least two groups curate their shows at the same time. A group member should serve as a docent, providing a commentary to fill out caption material. When all groups have visited each show, taking notes as they go, they will be ready for the next part of this activity.

  2. Select a student from each group to comprise a panel of critics to react to all they have seen from the point of view of the following:
    • A forty-niner in San Francisco
    • A New England abolitionist in 1854
    • A Border State settler in 1854
    • A member of Congress in 1868
    • A Nez Perce at the time of the Dawes Act in 1887
    • A Mexican settler living in Texas in 1890
    • A contemporary Lakota living on the Pine Ridge Reservation
    • A current member of Congress from Wyoming

Activity 5

    Conclude this study by returning to a class discussion of the impact of these visual mages on popular opinion and emotion. Points of discussion might include:
    • Do these artists tell the "truth" about the American West?
    • Have these depictions influenced them in any way?
    • How did they first come to see these works?
    • How were most images preserved?
    • Many of them were mass-produced in chromolith reproductions.
    • Others were seen in traveling exhibits. The personal photographs were preserved in family albums and handed on.
    • Students should try to determine whether or not "Shadow Catcher" Edward S. Curtis, in his 30 years of "documenting " Indians' faces and paraphernalia, falsified their cultures and "used every trick of the camera and darkroom to fabricate a romanticized image."
    • Ask the class to consider what is missing from many these artists' images.
    • Was it possible for any media available at the time (or even now) to reconcile the mythical West to the reality of American expansion?
    • What might the American West and its settlement have looked like if Native Americans had wielded the brushes and been the photographers?

Assessment Recommendations
Students can be assessed on the following:

  1. how well they prepared their exhibits,
  2. how well they cooperated in sharing activities, and
  3. their understanding of historical context in light of their participation in critical role-playing.

Extension/Adaptation Ideas

  1. If a scanner and Hyperstudio are available, students could present a multimedia show of their artists' work accompanied by students' own critiques and responses to it. They could include place identifications as well as questions about the chronology of Westward expansion concurrent with the artists' output.

  2. Students could use the buffalo skin pictographs of Little Wolf (see Episodes 2, Archives) or the Battle of Little Big Horn (see Episode 6, Archives) to write about Indian pictorial documentation of some of the same events as they were imagined or recreated by "white" artists. In the book Native Americans by Arlene Hirschfelder, there are additional examples of drawings on hides and in ledgers. Another choice might be to have students create a pictograph account of a week's or a month's news highlights. (For further information about ledger drawings, the Metropolitan Museum Web site may provide further information based on a recent show of them.)

Online Resources

Web Sites

Print Resources

  • Apraxine, Pierre and Hambourg, Maria Morris. The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993.
  • Bierhorst, John. In the Trail of the Wind: American Indian Poems and Ritual Orations. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987.
  • Christman, Margaret C.S. 1846: Portrait of the Nation. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press,1996.
  • Catlin, George. Letters and Notes on the North American Indians. Mooney, Michael, Ed. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1975.
  • Hirschfelder, Arlene. Native Americans: A History in Pictures. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.
  • Kittredge, William, editor. The Portable Western Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
  • Newhall, Beaumont. The Daguerreotype in America. New York:Dover Publications, 1976.
  • Rothenberg, Jerome. Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditonal Poetry of the Indian North Americas. New York: Doubleday, 1972.
  • Snyder, Gary. Turtle Island. New York: New Directions Boooks, 1974.
  • Truettner, William H., ed. The West as America: Reinterpreting images of the Frontier. Washington: The Smithsonian Institution Press and the National Museum of American Art, 1991.
  • Yeoman, R.S. A Guide Book of United States Coins. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Relevant National Standards
This lesson addresses the following national curriculum standards.

  • Language Arts (9-12)
    established by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning


    • 1. Demonstrates competency in the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
    • 3. Uses grammar and mechanical conventions in written composition.
    • 4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

  • History
    established by the National Center for History in the Schools

    Historical Thinking

    • Standard 2, I: Draw upon visual, literary and musical sources including a) photographs, paintings, cartoons, etc., to clarify, illustrate, or elaborate upon information presented in the historical narrative.

    Historical Analysis and Interpretation

    • Standard 3, A: Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions by identifying likenesses and differences.
    • Standard 3, F: Compare competing historical narratives.

About the Author
Sari Grossman has taught at the Village Community School in New York City since its founding in 1970. Prior to that she taught at the Bank Street School for Children, where she received her professional training in education, and served as a social studies consultant to Follow Through and Head Start programs in Boulder, Philadelphia, Cambridge, and Brooklyn, among other locations. She has co-authored an innovative fraction workbook called, "Show Me one Half," and with Joan, an anthology on immigrant experiences published by NTC. Over the years, she's also offered numerous workshops in math, literature, and social studies at teachers' conferences in various states. She is currently finding the Internet a new stimulus for creating curriculum.

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