American Sahara

Near East Far West Online Exhibition Guide

During the 1800s, few Europeans or Americans would have seen a true desert firsthand. However, because of the references of deserts in the Bible and in literature such as The Arabian Nights, they maintained a powerful presence in the popular imagination.

As American explorers pushed westward, they were challenged to describe the vast, arid spaces they encountered. By invoking the best-known desert—the Sahara—they used Orientalizing language to express the scope, appearance, and experience of, what was to them and their readers, new land. References to biblical landscapes established connections between the West and the Holy Land, reinforcing the idea that Euro-Americans were God’s chosen people pursuing a divinely ordained future.

French and American artists often accompanied military-led expeditions and campaigns into colonized lands, allowing them unprecedented access to desert regions. Artists expanded their aesthetic expression to capture the desert’s challenging environment and unique geographies. The resulting artworks often emphasize emptiness and danger, though many cultures have thrived in these arid environments for generations.

There are lands full of water for the well-being of the body, and lands full of sand for the well-being of the soul.

—Tuareg proverb

Eugène Fromentin
Bab-el-Gharbi Street in Laghouat (La Rue Bab-el-Gharbi à Laghouat)
Oil paint on canvas; 55⅞ × 40½ in
Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai, France, 148 ancien dépôt. © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY

In 1853, Fromentin arrived at Laghouat, an Algerian city whose inhabitants had suffered thousands of deaths six months earlier when attacked by the French. Because Fromentin had been escorted by the French military and commissioned by the French government to produce this work, he inserted only hints of that violence: the birds are possibly carrion birds enticed by dead bodies, and as noted by one contemporary French critic, the strange stillness of the resting figures could evoke shrouded corpses.

Fernand Lungren
In the Abyss: Grand Canyon
about 1896. Oil paint on canvas
60¼ × 40 in. (153 × 101.6 cm)
The Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara: Fernand Lungren Bequest, 1964.659

This dramatic painting presents an example of how the geography and climate of the desert pushed artists to experiment with color and composition. Between 1892 and 1897, the Santa Fe Railway funded Fernand Lungren’s initial trips to the Southwest as part of a promotional campaign. Here, in one of the resulting paintings, Lungren emphasizes a lone Diné (Navajo) figure rather than the trains and tourism that already marked the region.

Charles Marion Russell
Roping Fresh Mounts
Oil paint on canvas
24 × 36 in.
Cincinnati Art Museum: Williams Family Gift in Honor of William J. Williams, 2013.238. © Cincinnati Art Museum/Williams Family Gift in Honor of William J. Williams/Bridgeman Images

Charles Marion Russell created this painting after a trip to the Southwest in 1916. When recounting his experience in a letter to a friend, he described watching Diné (Navajo) riders, whom he called “American Arabs.” This phrase, already in use during the 1800s, situated Native Americans and Arabs as the increasingly rare remnants of so-called primitive culture being consumed by modern forces. Such attitudes continue to impact Indigenous and Arab peoples by ignoring their diversity, adaptability, and survival.

Gustave Guillaumet
Le Sahara (Le désert)
Oil paint on canvas
43½ × 78.9 in
Musée d'Orsay, RF 505. © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY. Photograph by Franck Raux/Stéphane Maréchalle.

In his painting of a camel’s corpse in an austere desert, Gustave Guillaumet, who had spent significant time in North Africa, presents one of the most poignant depictions of that landscape’s coexisting beauty and danger. Exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1868, it was met with confusion and hostility because of its strange subject and because, after over 30 years of colonial activity in Algeria, some viewers sensed a critique of French expansion.

Community Voices

Focus group participants often thought about how historical paintings might continue to impact the way we think about people in the present:

Eugène Giradet
Caravan in the Dunes of Bou-Saada (Caravane dans les Dunes de Bou-Saada)
Oil paint on canvas
26½ × 42¾ in. (67.3 × 108.6 cm)
Musée d'arts de Nantes, inv. 993. © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY. Photograph by Gérard Blot

Are we viewing these people in the paintings in the same way, today? Maybe in America we think we can look at a nineteenth-century painting of a cowboy on a horse and clearly understand it as historical. But, when the painting is of an ‘other,’ do we view the person as static, as a real representation that extends into the present?

—Shakir Muhammad, Fort Collins, CO

Near East to Far West: Fictions of French and American Colonialism is organized by the Denver Art Museum. It has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. Research for this exhibition was supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art. It is presented with generous support from Keith and Kathie Finger, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, Sotheby's, the donors to the Annual Fund Leadership Campaign, and the residents who support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). Promotional support is provided by 5280 Magazine and CBS Colorado.