Once upon a time... The Western

A new frontier in Art and Film

From October 14, 2017 to February 4, 2018

The first major multidisciplinary exhibition on the myths and stereotypes associated with the genre of the Western film from the nineteenth century to today

This major multidisciplinary exhibition offers a new interpretation of the Western film genre by examining its links to the visual arts (painting, sculpture, photography) from the middle of the nineteenth century to today. This exhibition studies the creation, transmission and transformation of the Western myth in North America, in both the United States and Canada. Over 400 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs, artefacts, film stills and excerpts show how the genre has evolved through ongoing dialogue between the fine arts and cinema.

ONCE UPON A TIME … THE WESTERN celebrates the beauty of the Western while revealing some of its more sombre aspects. It deals with certain prejudices against the peoples of the First Nations that it helped to perpetuate, and explores themes related to questions that are still current today, such as violence, the stereotypical representation of the sexes, interracial relationships, and the acceptance of difference. It shows the extent to which art has the power to both maintain and challenge the most widespread beliefs.

Lectures and films

Consult our cultural calendar to learn more about the lectures and films presented in collaboration with Éléphant : mémoire du cinéma québécois



The Little Western

A place for play and discovery for children and families, free of charge.

Intended for families, school groups and socio-community organizations, the Little Western has four parts: a grandiose natural landscape, a children’s theatre (in collaboration with the Festival international du film pour enfants de Montréal (FIFEM), a space for expression based on an illustration by indigenous artist Diane Obomsawin, and a space for cultural mediation between Western myths and indigenous realities.

Like the major exhibition at the Museum, the educational intention of The Little Western remains above all the discovery and deconstruction of a myth, for a better understanding of this legendary story.


The exhibition is accompanied by a 304-page, fully illustrated book published in French by MMFA’s Publishing Department and 5 Continents Éditions, and in English by the above-mentioned publishers and the Denver Art Museum. It brings together essays by historians of film, art and literature along with interviews with renowned directors like John Ford, Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino, providing a cutting-edge, interdisciplinary picture of the Western genre. Essays cover a broad range of topics, including the West as a symbolic landscape in nineteenth-century American art and Western film, the cowboy and American masculinity, portrayals of post-World War II women, contemporary art and the Western genre. This book was edited by Mary-Dailey Desmarais and Thomas Brent Smith, with graphic design by Paprika.

Curatorial Team

For the Montreal presentation, an enriched version of the exhibition was curated by Mary-Dailey Desmarais, Curator of International Modern Art, MMFA, under the direction of Nathalie Bondil. Thomas Brent Smith, Director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art (PIWAA) at the Denver Art Museum, is the co-curator for the tour. The exhibition is supported by a scholarly committee consisting of Gerald McMaster, professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Culture and Curatorial Studies, OCAD University, Toronto; Paul Chaat Smith, Associate Curator, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Stéphane Aquin, Chief Curator, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; and Andrew Patrick Nelson, Assistant professor of film history and critical studies, Montana State University.

The exhibition layout was designed by Nathalie Crinière from Agence NC, Paris, under the direction of Sandra Gagné, Head of Exhibitions Production at the MMFA.


Initiated by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, this exhibition was organized with the Denver Art Museum and is presented here in its enriched version.

This exhibition was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Terra Foundation for American Art, Major Benefactor of Once Upon a Time… The Western: A New Frontier in Art and Film.

The Museum also acknowledges the precious support of Wells Fargo and of Moira and Alfredo Romano, as well as Stingray, France and Raymond Royer, Marcel Elefant and George Lengvari and CN. It acknowledges the vital support of Air Canada, the Angel Circle of the Museum and its media partners: Bell, La Presse and the Montreal Gazette. It thanks the Éléphant – mémoire du cinéma québécois project for its collaboration.

The Museum extends its thanks to Quebec’s ministère de la Culture et des Communications, the Conseil des arts de Montréal and the Canada Council for the Arts for their ongoing support. The exhibition has also benefited from the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canada Travelling Exhibitions Indemnification Program. The Museum’s International Exhibition Programme receives financial support from the Exhibition Fund of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Foundation and the Paul G. Desmarais Fund.

The Museum would also like to thank its Volunteer Guides for their essential contribution, as well as all its members and the many individuals, corporations and foundations  ̶  in particular the  Fondation de la Chenelière, directed by Michel de la Chenelière, and the Arte Musica Foundation, presided over by Pierre Bourgie  ̶  for their generosity.

We would also like to extend our gratitude to all those who, through their generous assistance, encouragement and support made this exhibition and scholarly publication possible.