Madonnas of the Prairie: Depictions of Women in the American West

July 29, 2014

LOANS FROM THE ILLUSTRATION COLLECTION to Madonnas of the Prairie: Depictions of Women in the American West at the Panhandle-Plains Historical, Museum, Canyon, Texas (April 12-August 30, 2014) and National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (February 6-May 10, 2015)


Percy Van Eman Ivory (1883-1960). Cover of Harper’s Weekly, September 4, 1909. Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches. Louisa du Pont Copeland Memorial Fund, 1976.

Now on view at the Panhandle-Plains Historical, Museum, Canyon, Texas, Madonnas of the Prairie encompasses depictions of women in the American West from the late 19thcentury to the present. The Museum’s illustrations by Percy Ivory and Frank Schoonover are focal points of the exhibition’s wide-ranging scope and diverse imagery.

Percy Ivory’s demure cowgirl and her apparent suitor, and Frank Schoonover’s frontier dwellers crystallize narratives of what had entered the popular vocabulary as “the Western” in the early 20th century. By 1893, when the federal government declared the frontier settled, the West had already become a near-mythic locale of stories ranging from sentimental romance and to heroic survival. Owen Wister’s best selling novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902) and The Great Train Robbery (1903) one of the nation’s first popular films—advertised as a “faithful imitation of the genuine ‘Hold Ups’ made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West”—capitalized on a generation of dime novels about imaginary Western adventures.

While Percy’s ruggedly handsome cowboy and Schoonover’s mounted rider in the distance obviously contribute to plots—implied in the Harper’s Weekly cover and played out in Cooper’s novel—it is the woman who holds the foreground of each illustration.  As a magazine cover, Ivory’s image offers an open-ended narrative. This may be a chance meeting on the trail with a spontaneous opportunity for courting, or a planned excursion. In any case, the woman is a Western version of the Gibson Girl, with a high-collared shirtwaist blouse (bearing no trace of prairie dirt or dust) and upswept hair.  Despite her modestly downcast eyes, an attentive viewer in 1909 would have noticed that her riding style is astride, not side-saddle, a clue that this is not a passive female. In parts of the West, a woman caught riding astride a horse and not on a sidesaddle, or wearing pants, could be charged with indecent exposure. As late as 1913, American women had to defend their right to ride astride, an act that Western women linked to suffrage. Several women’s-rights leaders staged cross-country rides—astride, naturally—as parts of demonstrations supporting women’s right to vote. Judging by the smile (approving? ingratiating?) of the Harper’s Weekly cowboy, he seems quite at ease with his companion’s choice of saddle.

Ivory would have been aware of the significance of a woman’s riding style. After his early years studying in his native California, where his family named their home “Alamo” in honor or their frontier forbears, he worked on ranches in Nevada. His study with Howard Pyle in 1904 re-enforced his desire for detailed knowledge of his subjects, no matter how romantically portrayed. Ivory won recognition as a specialist in scenes of the West precisely because of his familiarity with its culture and customs.


Frank Earle Schoonover (1877-1972). Mort Rode Forth Boldly. For “Oklahoma,” by Courtney Ryley Cooper, in The Country Gentleman, May 1926. Oil on canvas, 26 x 36 inches. Gift of Mrs. Harald de Rapp, 1971.

Frank Schoonover’s scene of a woman in the days of the Oklahoma Land Rush with her laundry at a structure that looks ramshackle even for a sod house, looking at a man departing on horseback, summons up thoughts of the hardscrabble prairie life, of a woman burdened with the daily tasks of housekeeping in a hostile land. Rather amazingly, her white collar is as immaculate as the Harper’s Weekly cowgirl’s blouse, perhaps an indication of how such a woman preserves her dignity, or how she must keep up appearances at all costs. In the novel, she is a woman who  denies herself love and a family because she feels responsible for her orphan nephew and his father, despite their immorality. Ultimately, circumstances allow her to marry the man she loves (seen in the distance), and together they join “the maddened race in the get-away for a new land, a new life.” Her character plays out the complex interweaving of a woman’s desire for independence and her loyalty to moral principles, set against the uncertain and often violent environment of the West. As in much popular Western fiction of the period, the novel steers clear of any wider historical implications about American expansionism and the Oklahoma Land Rush.

A student of Howard Pyle, Frank Schoonover was a versatile artist. In 1926 alone, just a few of his illustrated works included a book about the American Revolution and an edition of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe as well as Cooper’s drama of the American West in The Country Gentleman. He traveled to many of the locales of his subjects and took numerous photographs as source materials. Schoonover maintained his studio in Wilmington and was a founding member and long-standing supporter of the Delaware Art Museum until his death in 1972 at the age of 95.

Dr. Mary F. Holahan
Curator of Illustration / Curator of Outlooks Exhibition Series

This Curator Corner was posted on July 29, 2014.

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