Ron first worked as a curator at the Amon Carter shortly after he received his Ph.D. from Texas Christian University, leaving in 1986 to become the director of the Texas State Historical Association until returning as director at the Amon Carter in 2006. Ron has served on numerous historical and art related boards and is active in the American Historical Print Collectors Society, where he just gave a enlightening talk at the 2009 conference in Portland. Ron is one of the most meticulous and wide-ranging print scholars and we are blessed that he is also a wonderful educator, sharing his knowledge through lectures, exhibits and as editor and author of over two dozen books.
Quite a number of his books relate to American prints, including Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist as Explorer; Nature’s Classics: John James Audubon’s Birds and Animals; Visions of America: Pioneer Artists in a New Land; and The Image of America in Caricature and Cartoon. Ron has particular expertise on John James Audubon, exploration art, and images of the American West. To me one of his most important books is the classic Prints of the West. This book provides an excellent overall view on the subject, and it is both scholarly and detailed, but also accessible to the general public (both in content and price). Whenever we meet someone interested in the topic, we always recommend this terrific reference.
I asked Ron if he would be willing to answer a few questions for this blog, and here are his replies…
Would it be fair to say that in the broadest sense you are an art historian? How did you get into this field?
I was trained as a historian, but began working at the Carter after teaching for two years at Austin College. So, in a real sense, I grew up at the Carter and received on-the-job training there. I think that history training works well for anyone involved in American art, because art is so crucial to understanding the culture of 19th century America. I worked at the museum until 1986, when I moved to the University of Texas at Austin, where I was a professor in the history department (teaching a course on the American West through history and art with Bill Goetzmann, who pioneered the course and wrote a book for it, The West of the Imagination) and director of the Texas State Historical Association. I returned to the Carter in 2006 as director just as they were presenting an exhibition that I curated on bird’s-eye views of Texas cities.
You have written on general images of America, John James Audubon and images of the west. How would you describe your particular focus and why is that of particular interest to you?
I’ve always been interested in historical images, particularly those made during explorations—hence my interest in the American West. I started with the idea that eye-witness paintings and drawings are primary historical accounts, just as diaries and journals are. I am captivated by the role that art played in defining the culture of 19th century America and how the images from explorations fit into that context.
There have been many books in the couple decade on prints of Native Americans and the American West. Do you think there is a particular topic within those subjects about which there is a particular need for new reference work?
There are important works that have not yet received proper attention. Bill Reese hasn’t published his research on Catlin yet; J. O. Lewis and McKenney & Hall still need further work, I think, as do many of the prints that came out of the great surveys. Joni Kensey’s work on Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone prints and the Joslyn Art Museum’s book on Bodmer are examples of the kind of work that can be done. I think more state and local work on the city views could be done. I would love to see someone do a full study of one of the good bird’s-eye views. There is still much to be done.
What are your favorite prints at the Amon Carter?
That is a hard question, but I really like the historical prints—Seymour, Bodmer, Nebel, Woodville, Bingham, Moran.
What are you working on currently?
I have two works in progress that I hope to be able to finish soon-—at least one of them. I haven’t finished the book on bird’s-eye views of Texas, because I was diverted to do the website (www.birdseyeviews.org) for the museum. I also have an almost-finished manuscript on Texas lithographs, 1818 to the latter part of the century.