Westward Ho and the Pioneer Madonna

Dr. Marianne Berger Woods
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In the early nineteenth century America's western landscape was as virginal as was the Madonna. As westward migration came into its own in the mid-nineteenth century, images of women and children in Renaissance-style Madonna poses began to appear in American art. They proliferated throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. The Virgin Mary would seem an unlikely image on the frontier, but Catholicism was spreading with the population.

By the mid-nineteenth century Pius IX exulted Mary's authority by establishing the Immaculate Conception as an article of faith. Thereafter artists in several Christian countries looked to the Italian Renaissance for inspiration in depicting their women. Images of the Madonna were used as metaphors for the virgin wilderness, and American artists were the only ones with the opportunity to link image and virgin territory.

The images I will discuss include lithographs, murals, paintings, and sculpture. In the nineteenth century they were not identified by title with the Madonna and Child, but in the second decade of the twentieth century titles were given specific references to her such as: Madonna of the Prairie, Pioneer Madonna, and Madonna of the Trail. Two national competitions in the twenties also generated a number of sculptured Madonnas – one in particular marked twelve sites along the Old National Road which ran from Maryland to Nebraska.

In this paper I juxtapose "Old Master" paintings with their New World look-alikes including images of Native and African Americans whose recognition as Madonnas came rather later in the nineteenth century. Before this some Native women were depicted as wild, and out-of-control. Often images reinforce stereotypes.

I will offer and discuss some consequences of depicting women negatively in the little-known images I have unearthed.

Keywords: Art History, Visual Studies, American Studies
Stream: Sexuality, Gender, Families
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Westward Ho and the Pioneer Madonna

Dr. Marianne Berger Woods

Assistant Professor of Art History, Humanities and Fine Arts, University of Texas of the Permian Basin

Growing up in a small town in Ohio, I was protected from everything except religious dogma. Thus it has been my mission as a "late-bloomer" to learn everything I can about all that I was not supposed to know. All of my academic degrees are from Ohio schools, the latest in 2000 at the Union Institute and University (my PhD). I have taught in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and currently am teaching in Texas. I vowed never to live West of the Mississippi again and yet here I am.

Ref: H05P0138