NEW YORK CITY — The American West, land west of the Mississippi, has inspired artists of all media — painters, sculptors, photographers and illustrators — to explore its vast thematic potential. While painters tended to focus on the panoramic beauty of the natural landscape, sculptors were drawn to human and animal subjects.
Their three-dimensional works depicted daily experiences, rituals and dress of Native Americans; activities of cowboys, settlers and hunters; coexistence and conflict between Indians and white pioneers; man’s relationship to natural dangers and beasts and animals as forces of uncivilized nature. By the dawn of the Twentieth Century, resulting bronze sculptures were eagerly collected by folks back East, particularly city dwellers seeking insights into an Old West that was often mythologized by the artists. Over time, that romantic vision of the West as an American Eden evolved into a disquieting place of vanishing Native Americans, decimated animals and exploited natural resources.
Through 65 bronze sculptures and three paintings by 28 artists, “The American West in Bronze, 1850–1925,” on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 13, explores the aesthetic and cultural concepts that led to statuettes with enduringly popular themes of the American West. The first comprehensive museum exhibition devoted to the subject is co-curated by Thayer Tolles, a Met curator of American paintings and sculpture, and Thomas Brent Smith, director of the Petrie Institute for Western Art of the Denver Art Museum.
Most familiar are sculptures by two artists who focused on the American West, Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. As a prolific illustrator specializing in Western types, Remington set standards for Western artists; his depictions of old-time trappers as “hairy primitives decked out in buckskin outfits,” in Western art historian Brian W. Dippie’s words, were echoed in other sculptors’ work.
Works by sculptors who infrequently essayed Western subjects, like James Earle Fraser and Paul Manship, also contributed to the widespread appreciation of American bronze statuettes. The exhibition explores the multifaceted roles these sculptors played in creating three-dimensional interpretations of Western life — whether based on historical fact and firsthand observation, mythological fiction or, most likely, something in between.
The 28 sculptors represented are bound together by their use of bronze, but came from vastly different backgrounds. Solon Borglum and Alexander Phimister Proctor, for example, grew up in the West and applied their firsthand observations to their work, even after moving to cities. Russell lived full-time in Montana, while Remington made forays west from his base in New York State. Edward Kemeys and Charles Schreyvogel were occasional explorers and frontline recorders of the Western experience. Frederic MacMonnies created his sculpture while living in France.
In spite of their varying life experiences, these sculptors collectively romanticized an Old West of Indians and cowboys, pioneers and wildlife that stood in stark contrast to the increasingly gritty realities of the East, where industrialization and immigration were altering urban life and cities. As Remington summed it up in 1907, “My West passed utterly out of existence so long ago as if to make it merely a dream. It put on its hat, took up its blankets and marched off the board: the curtain came down and a new act was in progress.” Russell’s late-life work “aches with yearning, not for an old-time plains fight,” says Dippie, “but for an old-time love affair with a way of life that was no more.”
The training of sculptors of the West varied greatly. Many, rigorously trained in academies in New York and Paris, applied sophisticated, French-inspired sculptural techniques to depictions of humans and animal subjects in statuettes that were celebrated at home and abroad as authentically American. Self-taught sculptors employed naturalistic treatments of forms and energetic play of light and shadow in their Western works. As the exhibition organizers conclude, “The confluence of thematic, technical and aesthetic innovations resulted in bronze sculptures that mediated between Eastern and Western, old and new, cosmopolitan and rough-hewn.”
The development of fine art casting in the United States influenced the works on view. Rather than using traditional marble — quarried in Europe and shipped across the seas at great expense — bronze, an alloy composed primarily of copper, became readily available in the United States following establishment of the earliest bronze foundries around 1850. Accessible and relatively inexpensive, bronze came to be regarded as both an American material and a democratic one. Displayed are compositions that would be impossible in marble — a bison’s furry coat or a cowboy on a bucking bronco or a fleet horse and rider suspended in midair, supported only by a trailing buffalo hide. In sum, bronze was especially well suited to the complex compositions, physical action, narrative detail and textural variety of Western subjects.
Public acceptance of bronze statuettes was enhanced by familiarity with other art forms reproduced in multiples, ranging from photographs, lithographs and various types of illustrations. Circulated by ever-expanding popular publications, these images familiarized American audiences with Native people, Western wildlife and majestic scenery. Editions of small bronze sculptures, starting with the mid-Nineteenth Century creations of Henry Kirke Brown and John Quincy Adams Ward, carried on the tradition of vision-sharing. Installing bronze statuettes in parlors, libraries and gardens, collectors were able to participate vicariously in adventures on the distant Western frontier.
The exhibition also examines how sculpture of the West was marketed, and which sculptures became most popular. Examples of Remington’s iconic “Bronco Buster,” 1895, demonstrate differences between sand cast and lost-wax cast objects, reflecting the compositional experimentation and variation that the artist relished.
Cyrus Dallin’s expressive “Appeal to the Great Spirit,” showing a Native American astride his horse making a post-bellum plea for peace, was cast in three different sizes, with more than 400 statuettes produced. Medium-sized and large versions will be on view.
Four themes, 1850–1925, are explored in the exhibition: American Indians, wildlife, cowboys and settlers. While the former two were favored subjects throughout this 75-year period, cowboys were not depicted in bronze sculptural form until the 1890s, and pioneers not regularly until the turn of the Twentieth Century. Major historical figures on view include Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, frontiersman Kit Carson, silent-film actor William S. Hart and humorist Will Rogers.
The section on Native Americans offers a range of three-dimensional work that conveys changes endured by Indian nations. As far back as 1820 individual American Indians had been recorded in painted portraits, and by the 1870s in bronze.
Most sculptural representations of Native Americans are renditions of their ways of life, running the gamut from day-to-day activities like hunting to sacred ceremonial rituals, blending storytelling narrative with universal themes. Hermon MacNeil’s “Moqui Prayer for Rain,” 1895–96, was inspired by the artist’s visit to Arizona, where he witnessed Hopi peoples’ annual prayer for rain atop a mesa. MacNeil’s swift runner has writhing snakes coiled around his arms and in his hair, symbolizing the lightning that brings rain to the arid land.
The nostalgia and regret reflected in a number of statuettes are manifestations of the complicated response of European and American artists to the vanishing American Indian and environmental costs of Manifest Destiny. James Earle Fraser’s unforgettable “End of the Trail,” 1918, informed by his observations growing up in Dakota Territory, shows an exhausted Indian slumped dejectedly on a windblown pony — a stirring commentary on the damaging effects of confinement on reservations of these proud, once-independent people. Gutzon Borglum, best-known for creating Mount Rushmore, sculpted “Fallen Warrior (Death of the Chief),” circa 1891, showing a horse forlornly pawing his fallen Indian rider.
By contrast, Paul Manship’s streamlined, Modernist “Indian Hunter and His Dog,” 1926, suggests the carefree spirit of young adulthood — “a metaphor for an American Eden before displacement by Euro American settlers,” say the curators.
The disappearance of indigenous wildlife, notably the slaughter of buffalo, drew the attention of artists during the closing of the frontier. Animal sculptures — bison, bears, panthers, elk and wolves — depicted with emphasis on physical accuracy and emotional resonance, served as powerful reminders of the vanishing Old West. Some were based on trips to the West to observe animals in their natural habitats, while others were simply inspired by visits to zoos. Proctor’s “Stalking Panther,” 1891–93, was based on a specimen shot during a game-hunting expedition to Colorado and refined in the sculptor’s Paris studio. This memorable composition depicts the stealthy hunter moving close to the ground — reflecting psychological tension and technical sophistication.
The American buffalo/bison epitomized the endangered animals of the West. Traveling in herds, they numbered in the millions before they were slaughtered so widely that their numbers were down to the hundreds by the early 1880s. Henry Merwin Shrady’s “Buffalo,” 1899, conveys the stately bearing and massive coat of this monarch of the plains. The bison and the skull on the rocky base symbolize the mighty animals’ demise. Russell also focused on buffalo themes, preferring, says Tolles, to “portray them as enduring symbols of the Old West.”
Sculptors occasionally depicted the playful side of Western wildlife, but more often focused on violent, elemental struggles between rival animals. In “The Combat,” 1908, Russell depicted two mountain rams locked in intense battle at the edge of a rocky precipice.
Another popular subject was horses, who played essential roles in hunting, trading, ranching, transit and fighting. Solon Borglum, born in Utah and trained in Cincinnati and Paris, brought fresh insights into the challenges confronting these mighty steeds on the frontier. He also sculpted poignant portrayals of bonds between man and horse, whether an Indian shielding himself behind his mount in “On the Border of the White Man’s Land,” 1899, or a cowboy and his steed huddled together in “The Blizzard,” 1900.
The section featuring representations of pioneers explores the perseverance and courage of settlers as they moved westward and interactions with the land, animals and Native Americans. Their real and imagined, gripping adventures were thematic fodder for sculptors. MacMonnies’ equestrian statuette of celebrated frontiersman “Kit Carson,” circa 1907–11, salutes the scout who guided explorer John C. Fremont on several expeditions through the Rockies, and became a mythical figure in the popular press for his daring exploits.
The role of women in settling the American West was immortalized by sculptors like Bryant Baker in his “Pioneer Women” monument in Ponca City, Okla. As Proctor said of his similar mother on horseback with children in hand, “Pioneer Mother,” 1927, in Kansas City, women represented “the hope for the future of the West.”
It is fitting that the Met, which has enviable holdings of sculptures with Western themes, should organize and host this exhibition. In 2012, the museum opened its first gallery devoted to art of the American West.
Overall, this intriguing exhibition documents the skill with which sculptors chronicled the American West, bolstering the case for Western art to be considered as a distinct discipline within the context of American art history. As Tolles puts it, “The point of the exhibition is that Western art should be considered in the mainstream.”
The fully illustrated catalog with perceptive and informative essays by scholars is published by the Met and distributed by Yale University Press. A volume of lasting importance, it sells for $65, hardcover.
After the Met, the exhibition travels to Denver Art Museum (May 9–August 31) and to Nanjing Museum, China (September 29–January 18, 2015).
The Met is at 1000 Fifth Avenue. For general information, www.metmuseum.org or 212-535-7710.