By Kristin Fong
The common saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” asserts that a simple image of an idea can more effectively describe it than the written word.
For many students, reading about history and memorizing facts and timelines isn’t enough to fully grasp the effect these events still have today. I have discovered through my 10 years of museum experience that research, literature, and primary sources really do go hand-in-hand with interpreting images. Speaking through the lens of the Western American art collection with which I work, I will share a few examples of historic paintings. Each painting has a unique story to tell, and each can really speak volumes about what has happened throughout history.
When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first came to the mouth of the White River in Southwestern Dakota in 1806, they described a herd of buffalo (bison) in these words: “These…animals are now so numerous that from an eminence we discovered more than we had ever seen before at one time; and if it be not impossible to calculate the moving multitude, which darkened the whole plains, we are convinced that twenty thousand would be no exaggerated number.”
When Lewis and Clark’s description is read in conjunction with the painting by William Jacob Hays, it may be possible to grasp how dense the herds of bison on the plains of the Midwestern United States really were in this century. Without the image, however, can you really get a sense of the “moving multitude” that Lewis and Clark described? Before the 1860s, when travel by rail became more popular, it was common to see herds of bison as far as the eye could reach. (Those dark spots along the painting’s horizon line are still part of the herd!) It would sometimes take a full day or two of travel by horseback or wagon, just to pass through one herd.
Because this phenomenon can no longer be witnessed today, images like this can illustrate for students the sheer quantity of Bison to be seen in the early days of the frontier. Like Lewis and Clark, your students can see a painting like this and feel as though they, too, are discovering something new.
Alternatively, creative writing and poetry can often edge readers toward a greater sense of the subject at-hand. However, when this poem, written by Captain William Banning and George Hugh Banning in 1928, is read without the painting seen below, can you quite fathom how dangerous, how thrilling, it might have been to ride a stagecoach? Can you quite grasp how terrified you might have been, careening down a canyon wall in a wooden and iron vehicle at top speed?
“Creeping through the valley, crawling o’er the hill, Splashing through the branches, rumbling o’er the mill; Putting nervous gentlemen in a towering rage. What is so provoking as riding in a stage?”
While testimonials and infographics certainly assist students’ understanding of complex or unfamiliar subject matter, images can reach a broader audience by providing common ground, even for students who may not be strong readers, or who may be English language learners. Images can serve as visual responses to political and cultural shifts over time, and offer a variety of styles and perspectives on historical events. I believe that history can be better understood through the eyes of artists who experienced it first-hand. So, in the future, I encourage you to prove your historical facts by showing primary historical records—pictures!
Kristin Fong is the Educator at the American Museum of Western Art—The Anschutz Collection. The Museum offers free school tours and customized lesson plans for interested student groups. As a transplant to Colorado, Kristin feels drawn to the West and aims to increase students’ interest in and understanding of Western art’s unique history.