In the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, industrialization and immigration altered East Coast cities and pushed toward the West, changing it as well. Frederic Remington, the renowned sculptor of Western themes, said nostalgically 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."
For many of the years explored in the exhibition, 1850–1925, nostalgia played a large role for many of the artists working with Western themes—while the American Indian and animals were favored subjects throughout this seventy-five-year period, the cowboy was not portrayed in sculptural form until the 1890s, and the settler not regularly until the turn of the twentieth century.
Sculptural representations of American Indians during this period included portraits, records of their ways of life, and works with more universal messages. Hermon Atkins MacNeil's Moqui Prayer for Rain (1895–96) was inspired by a visit to Arizona, where he witnessed the Moqui (Hopi) people's annual prayer for rain at the top of the mesa at Oraibi. The 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. Paul Manship's Indian Hunter and His Dog (1926), rendered in a streamlined modernist aesthetic, represents the carefree spirit of young adulthood. And the weary Indian slumped dejectedly on his windblown pony in James Earle Fraser's End of the Trail (1918) is a stirring comment on the confinement of American Indians on reservation land.
Images of Western wildlife—bison, panthers, bears, elk, and wolves—became popular at the same time that many species were brought to near extinction. 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. Henry Merwin Shrady's Buffalo (1899) convincingly depicts the stately bearing and weighty coat of this monarch of the plains. Some sculptors traveled to the West to observe animals in their natural habitats, while others were simply inspired by trips to urban zoos. Alexander Phimister Proctor's dramatic Stalking Panther (1891–93) relied on a specimen shot during a game-hunting expedition in Colorado and was refined during his stay in Paris. Solon Hannibal Borglum was known for poignant depictions of the bond between humans and horses on the frontier, whether it was an Indian shielding himself behind his horse in On the Border of the White Man's Land (1899) or a cowboy and his mount huddled together in The Blizzard (1900).
Frederic Remington set the standard for how artists would portray the cowboy with his first and most popular sculpture, The Broncho Buster (1895), in which a rough-and-ready cowboy singlehandedly tames a rearing mustang. Charles M. Russell, who was celebrated in his own lifetime as "the Cowboy Artist," shows a cowboy brandishing a revolver, as the horse rears in response to the sound of a discharged bullet in Smoking Up (1904). From the earliest days of motion pictures, the American West was a key cinematic subject. In Charles Cristadoro's portrait of William S. Hart (1917), the actor is presented in the guise that contributed to his stardom on the silent screen, earning him the nickname "Two-Gun Bill."
With the beginning of the California Gold Rush in 1848 and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, ever larger numbers of people moved west. Sculptors were inspired by the adventures–real and imagined–of trailblazing settlers, scouts, and traders. Frederick William MacMonnies's equestrian statuette of Kit Carson (ca. 1907–11) pays homage to the daring frontiersman who was mythologized as a folk figure in the popular press. In his model (1927) for the Pioneer Woman monument for Ponca City, Oklahoma, Bryant Baker spotlights women's contributions to the settlement of the American West. The 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.