Art Review: Charles Deas and 1840s America at the Denver Art Museum

Charles Deas: Prairie on Fire

Charles Deas, Prairie on Fire, 1847
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alastair Bradley Martin
the Guennol Collection, Brooklyn Museum

In Prairie on Fire, a painting completed by Charles Deas in 1847, a man on a white horse clutches an unconscious woman to his chest. Her face and body are nearly as white as the rumpled petticoat which slides from her shoulders. In the distance, the flames of a prairie fire reach upwards and lightning forks across a sky already darkened by smoke. Another man on horseback seems to urge the first rider forward as they gallop across a riverbed, but there is no promise of safety here. The yellow blades of the grass and the tiger-striped leaves of the river plants mirror the distant flames in both shape and color, and a billow of scarlet frames the woman’s limp white arm.

Less than a year after completing Prairie on Fire, Deas, not yet thirty years old, was committed to the Bloomingdale Asylum in New York City. He would spend the final eighteen years of his life in asylums for the insane. Family and friends were at a loss to explain the talented young artist’s lapse into psychosis; one contemporary noted that “the original cause of his malady” seemed to be “a settled melancholy and an unnecessary anxiety about the new science of magnetism” – better known as mesmerism. Thanks to his wealthy Philadelphia family, Deas was under the care of doctors who encouraged him to continue painting, but his career was effectively over. The canvases and drawings he had produced in a single decade of intense artistic activity would be dispersed, some attributed to other artists, many simply dropping from sight.

The first retrospective of the artist’s work, Charles Deas and 1840s America, will be on view at the Denver Art Museum through November 28, 2010. Guest curator Carol Clark hopes that the exhibition will lead to the rediscovery of Deas’s works in the most literal sense. She notes that in 1900, no works by Deas were known to have survived. A hundred years later, 45 surviving works have been located, but that number represents less than half of the 100 known or described. Thirty paintings and nine works on paper are on display in Denver, the sole venue for this retrospective. It is Clark’s hope that the exhibition – and the newly published catalogue raisonné that accompanies it – may lead to more rediscoveries.

Viewed in context with Deas’s other works, Prairie on Fire brings together a number of themes that ran through his all-too-brief career – his talent for narrative and action, often with gothic overtones, his projection of established American myths, dreams, and nightmares onto the newly opened spaces of the American West, and an intensity and ambiguity of feeling that may hint at his own troubled inner state.

Charles Deas: Walking the Chalk

Charles Deas, Walking the Chalk, 1838
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Museum purchase with funds provided by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund

The works on view in Denver make a compelling argument for Deas’s place in the history of American art. His masterful handing of figures in motion is clear in early works such as Walking the Chalk (1838). This painting also shows Deas’s fondness for placing chalky whites and strong reds against dark, lushly atmospheric backgrounds reminiscent of both European and American Romantics. In The Devil and Tom Walker, a canvas of 1838 depicting an episode from a story by Washington Irving, Tom Walker, clad in red and white, flees on horseback from the devil. A bolt of lightning splits the sky, a combination of motifs Deas would revisit in Prairie on Fire.

As Clark notes, works such as The Devil and Tom Walker and Walking the Chalk – depicting a barroom hustle – reimagine the stories of the early Republic in ways that include the economic and racial struggles of the time. A mortgage scrawled with red ink sticks out of Tom Walker’s pocket. In The Turkey Shoot (1837), illustrating a scene from the work of James Fenimore Cooper, African-Americans and their white masters uneasily cohabit in a wintry landscape.

Charles Deas: Winnebago (Wa-kon-cha-hi-re-ga) in a Bark Lodge

Charles Deas, Winnebago (Wa-kon-cha-hi-re-ga) in a Bark Lodge, 1842
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri – St. Louis

After a sharp economic downturn at the end of the 1830s, Deas made his way west, apparently paying his way by working as an itinerant portraitist. He made his way to Fort Crawford, on the upper Mississippi, where his brother was stationed, and where Deas encountered Native Americans, including Sioux and Winnebago. Among the works Deas undertook in his time on the frontier were four portraits of Winnebago men, including Wa-kon-cha-hi-re-ga, completed in 1842. The ethnographic exactitude of the portraits led many to attribute them to George Catlin, the renowned painter of Native American life, though Deas’s handling of his subjects is more dynamic and painterly than was Catlin’s.

Charles Deas: The Death Struggle

Charles Deas, The Death Struggle, 1845
Collections of the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont

It was in St. Louis that Deas established a studio in the 1840s, incorporating the figures and landscapes of the West into his elaborate, emotionally charged narratives. Now it was his work that inspired writers. Magazines commissioned authors to create thrilling tales of frontier life to accompany engravings of Deas’s paintings. Yet something nightmarish seems to be at work in images such as The Death Struggle (1845). Once again we see men on horseback fighting for their lives, this time as they plunge into an abyss. A trapper in red, mounted on a white horse, and a native warrior on a black horse tumble to their deaths as they fight over a trapped beaver. Blood and foam spatter the panicked horses. It is impossible to separate cliffs from clouds in the background, and a flight of birds in the air below the horses’ hooves adds a final dreamlike touch. The painting evokes artists’ imaginings of The Inferno or Paradise Lost more than, say, the pioneer narratives of George Caleb Bingham.

Deas did exhibit at least one more painting after he was institutionalized: a religious work, called A Vision, which has not survived. Contemporary descriptions make it sound like some creation of a Faustian artist in a tale by Poe or Hawthorne: full of “dim and half-revealed shapes of horror which afflict the feverish minds of the insane,” it made “the blood chill and the brain ache.” The brief moment in which Deas’s dreams and nightmares coincided with those of his countrymen and women had passed. His final surviving works (not on display) are two bland oils of Classical ruins derived from European originals, completed in the isolation of the asylum while the country was torn apart by civil war.

Looking at the works in this retrospective, it is very hard not to feel that American art lost a remarkable talent when mental illness brought a premature end to Deas’s career. The emotional power and technical skill evident here are amazing, especially when the viewer remembers these are the works of an artist who was still in his twenties.

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