Published: June 15, 2004
Over the course of his long career, Alexander Phimister Proctor (1860-1950) was recognized as a premier sculptor of the American West and a leader in sculpting wild animals. He won numerous prestigious awards, especially for his large outdoor monuments, and was widely acclaimed by his peers and the public alike. As his grandson, Phimister Proctor Church, points out, Proctor created 27 works of monumental sculpture, while his better-known contemporaries, Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, produced only one, by the latter.
Among the “Big Three” of Western sculpture – Proctor, Remington and Russell – Proctor was the only one with formal art training, and his output was prolific.
Proctor was the first sculptor to create monumental equestrian sculptures portraying Native Americans and cowboys. His works immortalized statesmen, pioneers, lawmen, women and all manner of wild animals. Today, Proctor statues grace cities from New York, Princeton, N.J., and Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., as well as many museums.
Nevertheless, Proctor is one of a number of highly accomplished and significant American sculptors who have not received the lasting public recognition and scholarly attention they deserve. Fortunately, this gap has now been filled with this grand exhibition at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and the accompanying book, both organized by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
Proctor’s youngest son, Gifford Proctor, still working as a sculptor in Connecticut in his 90s, joined in encouraging the exhibition. In a reminiscence in the catalog, he writes that he is “increasingly impressed by Dad’s creations, by the impressive quality of his brain’s retention, by his animals’ anatomies and movements, and by his sensitivity to their psyches.”
“Wildlife and Western Heroes: Alexander Phimister Proctor, Sculptor” opened last fall at the Amon Carter and will be on view at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center through October 10. Some 70 objects, including smaller bronzes, models, sketches for large works, plaster casts, paintings, watercolors, etchings and drawings, plus Proctor’s tools, vintage photographs and other memorabilia, suggest the breadth and depth of the sculptor’s achievements and offer insights into his craft.
The comprehensive accompanying catalog, written by esteemed Western art historian Peter H. Hassrick, is the first scholarly monograph on the sculptor. “Proctor shouldered through a long and rewarding life with a contagious sense of joy and good humor,” writes Hassrick. “He embraced adventure, both physical and intellectual, and was pushed by a creative muse to great accomplishments in art.”
Proctor certainly had the pedigree and credentials to depict the West. He was born in Lambton County, Ontario, Canada, but soon moved south with his family by covered wagon, eventually settling in Denver, Colo. During his formative years there, the future sculptor was surrounded by art reproductions in the Proctor residence and was encouraged in his artistic interests by his father, an avid reader about art. “I began to draw as soon as I could hold a pencil,” Proctor later recalled.
As a youth, he camped and hunted around the region, absorbing first-hand observations of the West. Later he spent long hours studying animals at zoos in New York and Paris. Proctor learned about animal sculpting, then a highly popular theme, while studying in Paris. He shot a bear and elk on the same day at age 16, and took another bear when he was 84 years old, culminating his lifelong passion for hunting.
Proctor took art lessons at the National Academy of Design and Art Students League and apprenticed with sculptor John Rogers in New York (1885-1887) and later studied at the Acadèmie Julian in Paris, 1893. He also frequented Rome to study and work.
In the course of creating a number of wild animal sculptures for the grounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he met America’s greatest sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The older man recognized Proctor’s special talent for equestrian subjects and asked him to model horses for his statues honoring General John Logan in Chicago, 1897, and General William Tecumseh Sherman at the Grand Army Plaza in New York, 1903. In each, heroic figures of the Civil War leaders are mounted on lively steeds created by Proctor. The New York Times said the “Sherman Monument” “must…be ranked with the most notable achievements in equestrian sculpture produced in modern times.”
In Chicago, Proctor met Margaret Daisy Gerow, a painter and sculptor then working with sculptor/historian Lorado Taft, and married her in 1893. She became the mother of their seven children.
One of Proctor’s early successes was “Stalking Panther,” a piece that captures the energy, stealthiness and grace of these powerful creatures. On view in the exhibition is a bronze version, 1893 owned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Proctor continued to produce sculptures depicting everything from fawns, Arab stallions and elk to polar bears and lions. Before long his close attention to the accuracy of details and the skill and simplicity of his works brought him larger commissions, often involving people as well as animals.
Among notable early examples was a splendid equestrian statue, “Indian Warrior” (modeled in 1898 and cast initially, 1900-1901), which was widely exhibited in numerous versions. The work was based on a model spotted by Proctor at the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. Several notable busts of dignified Native American chiefs came later in the sculptor’s career.
Important commissions that can be seen from coast to coast include lions at the base of the McKinley Monument in Buffalo, 1907; “Buckaroo,” 1915, at the Denver Public Library: “Bronco Buster,” 1920, and “On the War Trail,” 1920, in Denver’s Civic Center Plaza; “Pioneer Mother (Equestrian),” 1927, in Kansas City, and “Pioneer Mother,” 1932, at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
The two tigers that famously continue to guard the entrance to Nassau Hall at Princeton University, 1912, were based on a Bengal tiger belonging to Ringling Brothers Circus, then in New York. Proctor’s lengthy sittings with “Jerry” proved to be a publicity bonanza for the sculptor and the circus. The final versions were praised by leading art critics of the day for their “grim reality made manifest in their heavy yet lithe forms” and their “nobility…lifelike quality…[and] artistic grandeur.”
In Washington, D.C., today, Proctor’s four 4-foot-tall tigers adorn the Sixteenth Street Bridge, 1910, four massive (7 feet high) buffalo flank the Q Street Bridge, 1914, and 6-foot-high bison keystones decorate the Arlington Memorial Bridge, 1932, over the Potomac River.
Among the most memorable of Proctor’s large statues is that of his friend, “Theodore Roosevelt” as a Rough Rider in Portland, Ore., 1922. Hassrick calls it “superior” to “other equestrian monuments to be found in America’s public places.” Of the dignified figure, “General Robert E. Lee,” 1936, in Dallas, Hassrick writes, “Proctor had seen Lee not as a man in defeat but as ambition incarnate, not as a person but as an ideal force.” “Lee” was modeled while the sculptor lived and worked in Westport, Conn., 1927-1936.
Proctor was meticulous in his research and selection of models for major pieces. For “Mustangs,” 1948, at the University of Texas in Austin, initiated by folklorist Frank Dobie, the sculptor spent time at King Ranch in south Texas studying 70 small steeds that were as “wild as the outdoors in which they lived,” as he put it.
Proctor selected 15 mustangs as models for the stirring depiction of a spirited melee of wild horses in action. The resulting statue was widely admired, particularly by King Ranch cowhands, who found the piece “so perfect…[that] they could recognize every one of the horses,” according to Hassrick.
Throughout his career Proctor traveled extensively to study and create sculptural models. He won a legion of admirers in his profession and among art authorities and the general public.
After the death of his wife in 1942, Proctor moved to Palo Alto, Calif., to stay with one of his daughters. He continued to sketch, paint and work on sculpture plans until his death in 1950, just short of his 90th birthday.
Proctor left us with a vast number of unparalleled sculptures of the animals and people of the American West that will be enjoyed by many generations to come. As Hassrick observes, he was a man who through his art “lived joyously in the wilds and…in turn brought the wilds to life.”
As this most welcome exhibition attests, “He was dedicated,” in Hassrick’s words, “over a career that spanned 60 years, to creating simple, noble, and honest evocations of life. His was a legacy to a grand vision of Western American history and an unaffected, though romantically drawn, response to nature.”
The 255-page book that accompanies the exhibition is, as one would expect from such a respected authority as Hassrick, thorough, insightful, educational, interesting and well written. Hassrick is a former director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and most recently served as founding director of the Charles M. Russell Center at the University of Oklahoma. He examines influences on Proctor and his major achievements in the context of his long life.
The volume features 160 illustrations, 140 in color. Fifty-five works are examined in word and picture, with numerous historical photographs. There are recollections of the sculptor by his son and grandson, a Proctor chronology, a list of major public works, exhibition history and bibliography.
Cody Museum is Appropriate Venue for Proctor Show
It is fitting that the Proctor exhibition is making its second and final stop at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the largest art and history museum between Minneapolis and the West Coast. Located in tiny Cody (population 9,000) and 52 miles from Yellowstone National Park, this institution is a surprise to many visitors. “Nowhere else in the United States is such an important museum located in such a remote location,” note historical center officials.
Its complex of five museums houses thousands of objects relating to the art, culture, ethnology, technology and wildlife of the American West. First known as the Buffalo Bill Museum, it started out in 1917 in a small log cabin devoted to the memory of the legendary Western hero, William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody. His adventurous life included a stint as a Pony Express rider, service with a Union guerilla team in the Civil War and later as a civilian scout for the US Army (when he won the Congressional Medal of Honor) and work as a hunter supplying meat for workers on building the transcontinental railroad, for which he earned the nickname “Buffalo Bill.”
Cody capped off his career as the organizer and star of the highly popular “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” a touring group that for three decades demonstrated to people all over the world what America’s frontier legacy was all about.
Many of the 250,000 visitors to the historical center each year make a beeline for the Whitney Gallery of Western Art. Opened in 1959, it holds an outstanding collection of original paintings, sculptures and prints that reflect artistic interpretations of the West from early in the Nineteenth Century to the present.
Among its highlights are early documentary art by George Catlin and Alfred Jacob Miller, epic landscapes by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, nostalgic views of the Old West by Remington and Russell, and dramatic illustrations by N.C. Wyeth and W.H.D. Koerner. There are contemporary works by the likes of James Bama, Harry Jackson and Fritz Scholder.
A special treat not to be missed are the transplanted, fully stocked studios of Remington (moved from its original site in New Rochelle) and Koerner, and the Joseph Henry Sharp Cabin.
“We are the story of the American West,” say historical center staff. Indeed, these high-quality, comprehensive museums offer unequaled insights into the art, history and culture of the vast region west of the Mississippi. Little wonder that author James Michener once called the Buffalo Bill Historical Center “The Smithsonian of the West.”
Published by the Amon Carter Museum in association with Third Millennium Publishing, this handsome book sells for $60 (hardcover). The Buffalo Bill Historical Center is at 720 Sheridan Avenue in Cody, Wyo. For information, 307- 587-4771 or wwwbbhc.org.
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