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HomeEventThe American West in Bronze, 1850–1925, opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The American West in Bronze, 1850–1925, opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Sculpture Exhibition at Metropolitan Museum Features Iconic Representations of American West

Exhibition Dates: December 18, 2013-April 13, 2014

Exhibition location: The Erving and Joyce Wolf Gallery, The American Wing,
Gallery 746

At the turn of the 20th century, artistic representations of American Indians, cowboys and cavalry, pioneers and prospectors, and animals of the plains and the mountains served as visual metaphors for the Old West and, as such, were collected eagerly by an urban-based clientele. Through some 65 bronze sculptures by 28 artists, the traveling exhibition The American West in Bronze, 1850–1925, opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on December 18, will explore the aesthetic and cultural impulses behind the creation of statuettes with American western themes so popular with audiences then and now. It is the first full-scale museum exhibition devoted to the subject and brings together examples from public and private collections nationwide.

The exhibition is made possible by The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and the Enterprise Holdings Endowment.

It was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the Denver Art Museum.

In addition to representative sculptures by such archetypal artists as Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, the exhibition will explore the work of sculptors who
infrequently pursued western subjects—such as James Earle Fraser and Paul Manship—yet profoundly informed widespread appreciation of the American bronze statuette. The American West in Bronze, 1850–1925 will offer a fresh and balanced look at the multifaceted roles played by these sculptors in creating three-dimensional interpretations of western life, whether those interpretations are based on historical fact, mythologized fiction, or, most often, something in-between.

Exhibition Overview
Although the 28 artists represented in the exhibition are bound together by their use of bronze, they are distinguished by varying life experiences. Alexander Phimister Proctor and Solon Hannibal Borglum, for instance, grew up in the West, and that first-hand experience informed their work, even after the artists had moved to cosmopolitan centers, especially New York and Paris. Some resided in the West their entire lives—notably Russell, who settled in Montana—punctuated only by brief travels east or abroad. Others, such as Edward Kemeys and Charles Schreyvogel, were transitory explorers, ethnologists, and front-line recorders of the western experience. Still others rarely traveled west of the Mississippi River—Frederic William MacMonnies, for example, spent most of his career in France.

Despite inherent differences, these sculptors collectively glorified an Old West past of Indians and wildlife, cowboys and pioneers, in marked contrast to the gritty realities of industrialization and immigration then altering East Coast cities and pushing inexorably westward. Remington no doubt spoke for many of his colleagues when in 1907 he stated, “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.”

Many of these sculptors were rigorously trained in academies in New York and Paris, and they applied sophisticated French-inspired sculptural techniques to depicting human and animal subjects in statuettes that were celebrated at home and abroad as authentically American. Those artists who were self-taught similarly achieved a naturalistic treatment of form and a lively play of light and shadow in their bronze representations of life in the western states and territories. Indeed, the confluence of thematic, technical, and aesthetic innovations resulted in bronze sculptures that mediated between eastern and western, old and new, cosmopolitan and roughhewn.

The development of fine art bronze casting in America is traced through the works displayed in this exhibition. Unlike marble, which was quarried in Europe and shipped across the ocean at great expense, bronze—an alloy composed of copper, with lesser amounts of tin, zinc, and lead—became readily available in the United States following the establishment of the earliest art bronze foundries around 1850. Because of its accessibility and relatively low cost, bronze came to be considered both as an American material and a democratic one. The exhibition will include many compositions that would not be possible in marble, featuring such extremely challenging depictions in bronze as the astonishingly realistic representation of a bison’s furry coat or a fleet-footed horse and rider suspended in mid-air, supported only by a trailing bison hide. Bronze was particularly well suited to the complex compositions, textural variety, physical action, and narrative detail of these western works.

Popular appreciation of the bronze statuette was cultivated by familiarity with other art forms reproduced in multiples. Photographs, lithographs, and other types of illustrations, especially those circulated by the ever-expanding popular press, familiarized Americans with majestic scenery, native people, and western wildlife. Editions of small bronze sculptures, beginning with the midcentury work of Henry Kirke Brown and John Quincy Adams Ward, were logical extensions of this vision-shaping. Bronze statuettes were collected by a clientele who vicariously participated in adventures on the distant western frontier by installing sculptures in their parlors, libraries, and gardens.

The exhibition will also explore how the sculpture was marketed, and which sculptures attained particular popularity. In two instances, casts of the same subject will be shown side by side. Examples of Frederic Remington’s Broncho Buster (1895), issued in an authorized edition of more than 275, will display vividly the differences that evolved in his sculptures. Comparison of a sand cast and a lost-wax cast will illustrate the compositional experimentation and variation in which Remington delighted. One was cast by 1898 when it was presented to Theodore Roosevelt from his Rough Riders (Sagamore Hill National Historic Site). The other, featuring the rider’s virtuoso “wooly” chaps, was cast in 1906 and purchased by brothers Will and Mike Hogg, who were prominent Remington collectors (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). Cyrus Edwin Dallin’s Appeal to the Great Spirit, an American Indian on his horse making a post-bellum plea for peace, was cast in three different sizes, with more than 400 authorized statuettes produced. The exhibition will present the medium-sized and large versions (1913 and 1912, respectively, private collection and the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College).

The exhibition covers the period 1850 to 1925 (with several later exceptions) and centers on four specific themes: the American Indian, wildlife, the cowboy, and the settler. While the American Indian and animals were favored subjects throughout this 75-year period, the cowboy was not portrayed in sculptural form until the 1890s, and the pioneer not regularly until the turn of the 20th century. Among the historical figures represented in the exhibition will be Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé, frontiersman Kit Carson, silent-film actor William S. Hart, and humorist Will Rogers.

The section on American Indians presents a range of sculptures that convey the changes endured by Indian nations. The documentary impulse to record individual American  Indians had begun in the 1820s with painted portraits and extended to bronzes by the 1870s. However, the majority of sculptural representations of American Indians are records of their ways of life, from day-to-day activities such as hunting to sacred ceremonial rituals, melding storytelling narrative with universal themes. Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s Moqui Prayer for Rain (1895–96, private collection) was inspired by his visit to Arizona in 1895, where he witnessed the Moqui (Hopi) people’s annual prayer for rain at the top of the mesa at Oraibi. MacNeil’s swift runner carries writhing snakes coiled around his arms and even in his hair, symbols of the lightning that brings rain to the arid climate.

The nostalgia and regret projected in many of these statuettes are symptomatic of the complicated response by Euro-American artists to the so-called march of progress. James Earle Fraser’s iconic End of the Trail (1918, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) was based on his experiences growing up in Dakota Territory. The weary Indian, slumped dejectedly on his windblown pony, is a stirring comment on the damaging effects caused by the confinement of American Indians on reservation land. Paul Manship’s Indian Hunter and His Dog (1926, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), rendered in a streamlined modernist aesthetic, reflects the carefree spirit of young adulthood, a metaphor for an American Eden before displacement by Euro-American settlers.

Representations of animals as visual records of disappearing indigenous wildlife were completed as many species were brought to near extinction during the closing of the frontier. Whether bison, panthers, bears, elk, or wolves, animal sculptures served as powerful reminders of the Old West, emphasizing physical accuracy as well as emotional resonance. Some works were based on sculptors’ trips to the West to observe animals in their natural habitats, while others were simply inspired by trips to the zoo. Alexander Phimister Proctor’s Stalking Panther (1891–93, Corcoran Gallery of Art) was based on a specimen shot during a game hunting expedition in Colorado and refined during his stay in Paris. Proctor records the stop-action drama of a stealthy hunter slinking close to the ground, reflecting psychological tension and technical sophistication.

Sculptors sometimes portrayed the playful side of wildlife, but more often they focused on elemental struggles between rival animals, allowing audiences to imagine, from a safe distance, the violent drama of these conflicts. Charles M. Russell’s The Combat (1908, Amon Carter Museum of American Art) presents two mountain sheep sparring at the edge of a rocky precipice, heads lowered, horns locked, the outcome of the tense encounter uncertain.

The North American bison was the most emblematic of endangered animals, with herds formerly in the millions wantonly slaughtered to number only in the hundreds by the early 1880s. It was depicted by nearly every major sculptor of the American West. Henry Merwin Shrady’s Buffalo (1899, Amon Carter Museum of American Art) convincingly depicts the stately bearing and weighty coat of this monarch of the plains. The bison as well as the skull on the rocky base is redolent with symbolism, poignantly reflecting on the animals’ demise.

Solon Hannibal Borglum, who was born in Ogden, Utah, and received his artistic training in Cincinnati and Paris, looked at the subject of horses afresh, emphasizing their essential role in the American West for hunting, ranching, fighting, trading, and transit. His sympathetic portrayals of horses enduring the challenges of frontier life were supplemented by poignant depictions of intense human-equine bonds, whether an Indian shielding himself behind his horse in On the Border of the White Man’s Land (1899, Metropolitan Museum) or a cowboy and his mount huddled together in The Blizzard (1900, Detroit Institute of Arts).

The rough-and-tumble vision of the American West is addressed through sculptures that make vivid the colorful drama and perils of the masculine frontier experience. The rugged and manly cowboy was a familiar stereotype, an American hero popularized through illustrations, artworks, literature, and traveling performances at home and abroad, notably Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. With his first and most popular sculpture, The Bronco Buster (1895), depicting a rough-and-ready icon singlehandedly taming a rearing mustang, Frederic Remington set the standard for how the cowboy was portrayed in sculpture.

A number of cowboy sculptures are overt projections of heroes testing their honor and proving their manhood in forbidding lands, the product of artists who often cultivated themselves at once as authentically western and also as worldly. Charles M. Russell, celebrated in his lifetime as “the Cowboy Artist,” provides an entertaining gaze onto the lawless side of cowboy life in Smoking Up (1904, private collection) in which a cowboy noisily brandishes a six-shooter, as the horse rears in response to the sounds of a discharged bullet. From the earliest days of motion pictures, the American West was a key cinematic subject, with paintings and sculptures serving as thematic wellsprings for filmmakers and actors. Charles Cristadoro’s portrait of William S. Hart (1917, Autry National Center of the American West) shows the actor in the guise that contributed to his stardom on the silent screen, earning him the nickname “Two-Gun Bill.”

A section that considers representations of pioneers examines the perseverance of settlers as they moved westward, interacting with the land, animals, and American Indians.  In particular, the California Gold Rush beginning in 1848 and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 hastened the inevitable exploration of land, coast to coast.  The gripping adventures—real and imagined—of trailblazing settlers, scouts, and traders were thematic fodder for sculptors. For example, Frederick William MacMonnies’s equestrian statuette of Kit Carson (ca. 1907–11, Sagamore Hill National Historic Site) pays homage to the frontiersman who guided explorer John C. Frémont during several excursions through the Rockies and was mythologized as a folk figure in the popular press for his daring exploits.  This spirited likeness of Carson, attired in a long fringed jacket with raised right arm beckoning westward, is reduced and excerpted from his Pioneer Monument (1907–11; Denver). In his model (1927, Woolaroc Museum) for the Pioneer Woman monument for Ponca City, Oklahoma, Bryant Baker spotlights women’s contributions to the settlement of the American West. Bryant’s young mother strides forward, leading her son by the hand and holding a Bible and a sack, alluding to both her faith in the face of homesteading’s hardships and to her status as heroine and provider.

The exhibition is co-curated by Thayer Tolles, Marica F. Vilcek Curator, American Paintings and Sculpture, The American Wing, and Thomas Brent Smith, Director, Petrie Institute for Western Art, Denver Art Museum. At the Metropolitan, the exhibition was organized by Thayer Tolles, with the assistance of Jessica Murphy, Research Associate, The American Wing. Exhibition design is by Michael Lapthorn, Senior Exhibition Designer; graphics are by Norie Morimoto, Graphic Designer; and lighting is by Clint Ross Coller and Richard Lichte, Lighting Design Managers, all of the Museum’s Design Department.

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