Designed by architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, New York's Central Park was built between 1858 and 1873. Encompassing 843 acres of meadows, gardens, lakes, bridges, and walking paths, Central Park is the most popular city park in America, receiving approximately forty million visitors each year. Stretching from 59th Street to 110th Street, the park is an urban oasis, providing New Yorkers and tourists alike with a picturesque escape from the hustle and bustle of the city streets. It also offers unexpected encounters with the American West.
Whether exploring on foot or in a horse-drawn carriage, you will find many public sculptures throughout the park. I spoke with Karen Lemmey, Curator of Sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and a specialist in American public sculpture, about the history of Central Park. "Interestingly, sculpture played a relatively small role in Olmsted and Vaux's original plan for the park," she explained. "Yet many prominent and wealthy patrons soon realized that it was the ideal place in which to commission monumental statues." Following the Civil War, there was a growing demand for commemorative public sculpture in America, and artists were commissioned to create monuments celebrating national heroes. Cast in bronze, a medium far more durable than marble, many of these works were executed in the Beaux-Arts style, emphasizing naturalism and dynamism, as well as moral and civic virtue.
Sculptors such as Henry Kirke Brown and John Quincy Adams Ward aimed to elevate American public sculpture. "Brown and Ward selected subjects that appealed to the public by striking at the very core of what it meant to be an American," Karen said. The American West was one such subject, capturing the attention and imagination of eastern audiences. "The popularity of the West in the East is evident when you look at the history of public sculpture in Central Park," Karen noted. "In fact, the first monument by an American artist to be placed in the park depicts a western subject." This monument is John Quincy Adams Ward's The Indian Hunter, cast in bronze in 1866 and unveiled in the park in 1869. The work is located mid-park at 66th Street, on a pathway west of the Mall and to the east of Sheep Meadow, and it was the first of four sculptures by the artist to be placed in Central Park.
In 1862, Ward exhibited a small bronze statuette of The Indian Hunter at the National Academy of Design in New York, and its success led him to enlarge the sculpture—first in plaster and then in bronze—for display at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris. This statue was then purchased by a committee of twenty-three prominent American artists and patrons, who presented the monument to the City of New York for installation in Central Park. "There was a great deal of civic pride embodied in this purchase and it was a major achievement in American patronage," Karen said.
The sculpture depicts an American Indian, bow and arrow in hand, striding forward in pursuit of his prey. He is accompanied by an eager and alert hunting dog, which he restrains at his side. The sculpture was based in part on studies of American Indians that Ward had completed when visiting Dakota Territory in 1864. Pursuing a realist aesthetic, the artist successfully captured a wide range of textural variety—from the roughness of the dog's fur and the animal pelt wrapped around the hunter's waist to the smooth polish of the figure's skin and the softness of his hair. Moreover, the figure's stance is remarkably convincing; as Karen noted, "Even today when people see this monument, situated under the canopy of trees, they stop for a moment thinking they've seen something real, a hunter moving stealthily across the park."
From Ward's sculpture, visitors can walk approximately one half mile north along East Drive (the eastern leg of the "loop") for another encounter with the American West. Perched atop a rocky outcrop on the west side of East Drive at 76th Street is Edward Kemeys' Still Hunt (1881–83). This lifesize bronze statue depicts a crouching panther, ready to pounce on unsuspecting passersby. "This sculpture manages to spook you every time," Karen said, "and there are probably generations of New York City children who have grown up thinking that there are wildcats in the park." Taking into account the landscape and layout of the park, Kemeys created a site-specific work that allows easterners to enjoy the drama and excitement of the West.
A self-taught artist, Kemeys began his career modeling wildlife at the Central Park Menagerie—now the Central Park Zoo—and he later traveled out west to study animals in their natural habitats. His sculptures reflect the influence of French animalier Antoine-Louis Barye (1796–1875), whose work Kemeys saw when exhibiting a plaster model of his Buffalo and Wolves at the Paris Salon of 1878 (a bronze cast of this work, lent by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is currently on view in The American West in Bronze, 1850–1925).
"Kemeys was the first American artist to specialize in animal sculpture, although he departed from the French tradition by focusing on North American wildlife," Karen explained. The feline family was of particular interest to the artist, and after his Still Hunt was unveiled in Central Park in 1883, he created a bronze bas-relief inspired by the public sculpture. A unique cast, this work is on view in The American West in Bronze and reveals the artist's keen knowledge of animal musculature.
Many American sculptors produced bronze statuettes after their public monuments, several examples of which are on display in the Met's exhibition. As Karen explained, "This was one way an artist could create longevity for his or her project, often recovering some of the financial cost that went into creating the large-scale statue. However, as an art historian specializing in sculpture, I find it extremely satisfying to study reductions, as they allow you to see details that are often difficult, if not impossible, to see in the monuments themselves. You can't climb on top of sculptures in parks and plazas, but you can examine reductions closely, and these statuettes allow us to see these works in a new light."
Of course, western-themed public sculpture was not unique to Central Park or even to New York. Between the Civil War and World War I, monuments were erected in cities across the Northeast, from Washington, D.C., to Boston. A few highlights are listed below, but I encourage you to share other examples of Western public sculpture that you have encountered on the East Coast.
Cyrus Edwin Dallin, Appeal to the Great Spirit, 1909 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Alexander Phimister Proctor, Buffalo, 1911–14 (Q Street [Dumbarton] Bridge)