Frank Tenney JohnsonU.S. 1874-1939
On the Salt Lake Trail 50.0875
Frank Tenney Johnson called On the Salt Lake Trail one of his very best historical paintings. It depicts an incident on the old trail in western Wyoming of 1862, at a time when the stagecoach was the only means of transporting the U.S. mail across the plains between Omaha and the Pacific Coast. In the painting the coach is under attack by the Sioux. According to Johnson, when this coach was attacked, the driver and passengers barricaded themselves beneath the coach using mail pouches and mounds of dirt as a shield. At nightfall they unhitched the front running gear from the coach and used it to transport the wounded to the next station (Three Crossings on the Sweetwater River). This painting was made in the 1920s when ideas about Native Americans widely differed from today's. In the past, "western" art either demonized or idealized tribal culture and the Indian, portraying him either as a savage or as a heroic and noble creature made extinct by white civilization. Johnson was born beside the Oregon Trail near Council Bluffs, Iowa at a time when grass and flowers covered the rolling prairie instead of corn. In a letter written to this museum, he recounted seeing long lines of prairie schooners as a boy and remembered the excitement caused by the frequent arrivals of the stagecoach. These made such a lasting impression on him that he later returned to these scenes for subject matter. Johnson first studied painting at the Art Students' League in New York under Robert Henri but later became interested in representing scenes of the West when studying painting under Richard Lorenz, Texas Ranger turned artist.
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