In one painting from 1916, a Native American on horseback pursues a buffalo, and the rider is on the brink of taking down the animal.
The painting by Edgar Paxson is dramatic, but it's also nostalgic for an idea of the West that didn't really exist at the time the artist put brush to canvas.
"You're looking at this idealized vision of a past civilization and past ecological resource that we've sort of changed the face of forever," said Jeremy Canwell, interim curator of art at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.
On Thursday, Jan. 7, the MMAC opens an exhibit called "Glorious Vista: Art of the American West from the MMAC Permanent Collection." It features Paxson's "Evening Hunt," as well as other pieces showing a similarly romantic view of the West, some 60 works in all.
The opening kicks off with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Paxson and Meloy galleries in the Performing Arts and Radio-TV Center at the University of Montana. The show runs through Feb. 20.
Barbara Koostra, MMAC director, said the exhibit features selections from the museum's own collection of 11,000, displaying works in oil, photography, water colors, lithographs and cast bronzes. It shows viewers the painters who had a keen interest in the West in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as their relationship to those living far from the frontier.
"We wanted to point to artists that were journeying to the West because of their fascination with the lands and also native cultures," Koostra said. "Some of them were here for perhaps more commercial motivations in terms of inspiring the eastern seaboard audiences."
An announcement about the show notes the settings are as varied as the pueblos of New Mexico to Glacier National Park.
One piece stands out to Canwell as an anchor for the rest of the exhibit, a photo engraving by Edward Curtis.
"It depicts with photographic objectivity an encampment of Blackfeet Indians," Canwell said.
In that moment, the viewer sees not what was in the painter's mind, he said, but exactly what the artist himself saw.
"The show hinges on that turn, where you go from documenting and recording a disappearing landscape and native culture and turn toward more fantasy," he said.
Some works from the 1950s and 1960s show notions of a storybook West rather than the landscape and people as they actually were. In the imaginings, the mythical cowboy appears looking heroic.
"You have these ... very determined men in the pursuit of controlling their environment, and that cowboy hero has really never gone away from our national mythology," Canwell said.
"So it's a great opportunity to sort of study the art of the American West, not only as a documentary (and) historical record, but also as a registration of our imagination and what we remember with romantic fondness, or what we like to tell ourselves is the past."
A guest curator, Cheryl Leibold, put the show together, Koostra said. Leibold and her husband, who is from Butte, live in Philadelphia, but they return to Missoula every summer, the director said. Leibold has retired from an esteemed career as a registrar of art in Philadelphia, but she has volunteered for MMAC the last five summers.
In Missoula, Leibold had investigated MMAC's permanent collection, so when Koostra wanted to display an exhibit of Western art, Leibold delivered it. "Glorious Vistas" was born.
In a statement, Leibold said work in the mid-19th century "embellished and partially invented the western landscape."
"The landscapes of the American West have excited artists for centuries," Leibold said. "It was rewarding to select the works for this exhibition and in the process, examine how artists depict the history of the West with widely different perspectives."