This week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast — our 150th show! — features curator and historian Nenette Luarca-Shoaf and artist Sonya Clark.

Luarca-Shoaf is one of the curators of "Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River," which opens at the Amon Carter Museum on October 2. Bingham was the first great American artist to take the newly opened trans-Appalachian West as his subject. A Missourian, Bingham paintings of waterways, typically presumed to be those in his native state but in reality images that filled in for the river culture that dominated trade and the movement of people through the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi River valleys, represent America’s first major visual grappling with the enormity and variety of our continent. ”Navigating the West” examines how Bingham both created his art and some of America’s first ideas about the West. The show will travel to the St. Louis Art Museum and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The catalogue is published by Yale University Press. Luarca-Shoaf is one of the half-dozen or so curators and conservators who worked on the exhibition. 

These are two of Bingham’s three earliest paintings of Western rivers (the third is here): Landscape: Rural Scenery (1845) and The Concealed Enemy (1845). 

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Missing Chapter From America’s History Books

One In Four Of America’s Cowboys Were African-American

Many of the slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries were familiar with cattle herding from their homelands of West Africa. This brings historians the question of the name “Cowboy” and whether or not it was made from slave cow herders.

  • On some Texas trails, about a quarter of cowboys were black.

African American cowboys were largely African American freedmen after the Civil War who were drawn to cowboy life, in part because there was not quite as much discrimination in the west as in other areas of American society at the time. For enslaved Blacks the West offered freedom and refuge from the bonds of slavery. It also gave African Americans a chance at better earnings. . After the Civil War many were employed as horsebreakers and for other tasks, but few of them became ranch foremen or managers. Some black cowboys took up careers as rodeo performers or were hired as federal peace officers in Indian Territory. Others ultimately owned their own farms and ranches.

  • Hundreds of black cowboys were among the very first hands who drove huge herds along trails to Abilene, Kansas, the cattle-selling center of the Old West.  They were especially skilled in vetting horses. When herding cattle, many black riders rode “on point,” ahead of the dust. Black cowboys were forced to do the hardest work with cattle, such as bronco busting, they had special skills with breaking in steeds.

Photo: No original source found, possible circa 1913 http://www.geni.com/projects/Black-Cowboys/1986