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‘Dakota Woman’ headed to Texas

Lori Holmberg, executive director of the Dakota Discovery Museum, poses with "Polly Kent Rides West," foreground, by Charles Hargens Jr., and "Dakota Woman," by Harvey Dunn, Wednesday in Mitchell. The two paintings will travel to a museum in Texas next year for a "Madonnas of the Prairie" exhibit. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

Artwork depicting the evolution of early pioneering prairie women will soon be on display in Texas — including Harvey Dunn’s classic “Dakota Woman.”

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Lori Holmberg, executive director of the Dakota Discovery Museum in Mitchell, said the curator of a Texas museum contacted her in August about borrowing the painting.

Dunn donated the painting to Dakota Discovery in 1942. He grew up in Kingsbury County.

The exhibit, “Madonnas of the Prairie,” will be on display at the Panhandle-Prairie Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas, next year.

Michael Grauer, associate director for curatorial affairs/curator of art and Western heritage for the museum, said the exhibit was inspired by South Dakota artist Remington Schuyler’s untitled painting affectionately called “Madonna of the Windmill.” The 1915 painting is housed in the Texas museum and depicts a pioneer woman sitting on a platform on a windmill, shading her eyes and gazing across the prairie.

Grauer said the exhibit of about 70 works is centered around Schuyler’s piece. The exhibit will include oil paintings, sculptures, lithographs and drawings of prairie women — many already in the museum and others borrowed.

“The exhibit will show the evolution of the image of the frontier woman,” Grauer said.

He said women shown in early Western artwork were depicted as victims or bystanders, with expressions of terror or resignation. Toward the second decade of the 1900s, artwork showed women empowered — riding horses, chopping down trees, plowing fields — and “doing more than their part,” Grauer said.

So why include “Dakota Woman” in the exhibit? The painting depicts a woman sitting on the prairie with her infant beside her on the ground shaded by an umbrella. A house is shown in the background with the lonely prairie and the endless sky beyond.

Holmberg said the painting shows the strength of a woman who is on the prairie alone with such a heavy responsibility.

“She’s in the middle of nowhere and responsible for the survival of this infant,” Holmberg said. “She seems to have made her peace with where she’s at and she’s up to the challenges and she’s a survivor.”

Grauer agreed. He said the painting shows a strong female who has endured the hardships of living in an extremely lonely and isolated situation.

“I don’t think anyone realizes how hard it was to come out West and carve out a life. Many stories center on the men, but I think it was doubly hard for women,” he said. “It was incredibly, painfully lonely.”

He said “Dakota Woman” depicts that perfectly. The woman is lonely, but realizes her position and “literally had no choice but to suck it up,” Grauer said.

Holmberg said she’s pleased to lend the painting to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. She said the richness of the colors and the impressionistic technique Dunn used to create “Dakota Woman” show the ruddiness and strength that many frontier women had.

Dunn did a series of dozens of paintings on women of the prairie, Holmberg said, and most were done in the impressionistic technique.

“These women aren’t smooth, glossy, model-toned women,” she said. “He used bright reds, blues and greens. It creates somewhat of a conflict in the paintings because you have these wonderful expressions on the faces, but also have this riot of colors in them and the surroundings. It’s a bit of a dichotomy between chaos and peace.”

Dakota Discovery Museum will also lend a second painting, “Polly Kent,” by Charles Hargens Jr. The painting, used as an illustration for the 1941 book “Polly Kent Rides West,” depicts the character sitting on a rock next to her palomino pony and a wagon train in the background, Holmberg said. Polly Kent is dressed in pants and wears a cowboy hat.

Grauer said “Polly Kent” is an entirely different look at a pioneer woman. While the subject in “Dakota Woman” likely rode West as a part of a family or larger group, Polly Kent made the trip on her own.

“She goes West by hook or crook. However she was going to do it, she did it on her own,” Grauer said.

Hargens grew up in Hot Springs. He was looking for somewhere to preserve his work and settled on Dakota Discovery Museum because he was friends with Leland Case, a founder of the museum. Hargens agreed to gift artwork and studio items to the Dakota Discovery Museum upon his death. He died in 1997 and 53 of his artworks arrived in Mitchell. His son, Charles Hargens III, gave a second gift in 2009 of 25 artworks.

“Dakota Woman” and “Polly Kent” will travel to Texas in mid-March. They will be on display in the “Madonnas of the Prairie” exhibit from April 12 to Aug. 30, 2014.