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George Catlin (1796—1872)


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Charles Deas


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Painter. Known primarily for dramatic scenes of western life, he often pictured danger or conflict, as in The Death Struggle (Shelburne [Vermont] Museum, 1845), perhaps his best-known painting. Here a frontiersman and an Indian grapple in combat, even as their horses plunge from a cliff, taking both to certain death. Violent movement and the sensation of deep space below the plunging steeds reinforce the terror of the moment. Deas helped to define the independent, action-oriented western male as a mythic American type. Born in Philadelphia, he grew up there and in New York State. With little formal instruction, as a young man he nevertheless gained recognition in New York for genre and literary scenes. Probably inspired by the example of George Catlin, in 1840 he traveled west. For the next seven years, he made his headquarters in St. Louis, while also traveling to record his impressions of Indians, trappers, hunters, and other frontiersmen. These descriptive drawings and watercolors generally document his observations with factual directness that contrasts with the exaggerated emotionalism of his romanticized studio narratives. Shortly after Deas returned permanently to New York, he suffered a breakdown that effectively ended his artistic career. For most of the next twenty years, he remained hospitalized for mental illness.

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