Trail Riders, 1964–65
Oil on canvas
67 ½ x 85 3/8 in. (171.5 x 217 cm)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Almost 75 years after the artist Albert Bierstadt visited the region, Thomas Hart Benton traveled to the Canadian Rockies in 1963. He painted this cinematic view of Mount Assiniboine near Banff National Park. Casting a nostalgic look at American history, the artist presents an unusual mid-20th-century connection to Manifest Destiny.
Benton—the grandnephew of a prominent senator who shaped the policies of American expansionism—looks back to a time when pioneers settled the American West. Throughout his life, he mythologized this theme, which helped earn him recognition as a “regionalist” artist celebrating rural culture.
With Trail Riders, Benton also draws upon classic Hollywood westerns that celebrate loners and nomads living along pioneer trails. The artist’s visit to Hollywood, courtesy of Life Magazine and Walt Disney Studios, enabled him to see firsthand the creation of idolized heroes in film.
Benton also meditates on his personal relationship to the land: the protagonists riding on horseback represent the artist and his friend. Snowcapped mountains offered him solace after his regionalist aesthetic became scorned by an art world enamored with abstract expressionism in the 1950s.