James Earle Fraser's End of the Trail is one of the most iconic works featured in The American West in Bronze, 1850–1925. First modeled in 1894, the sculpture is based on Fraser's experiences growing up in Dakota Territory; as he wrote in his memoirs, "as a boy, I remembered an old Dakota trapper saying, 'The Indians will someday be pushed into the Pacific Ocean.'" The artist later said that, "the idea occurred to me of making an Indian which represented his race reaching the end of the trail, at the edge of the Pacific." In 1915, Fraser displayed a monumental plaster version of the work at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, earning popular acclaim and a gold medal.
Within a few months, thousands of prints and photographs of the statue were sold, and in 1918 Fraser began producing bronze reductions of the sculpture in two sizes. Today, an online image search for "End of the Trail" returns tens of thousands of results, as the work has been endlessly reproduced in paintings and in prints, on posters, T-shirts, pins, bags, belt buckles, and bookends. It was even featured on the cover of The Beach Boys 1971 album Surf's Up. Despite its appeal as a popular American icon, Fraser intended the work as a pointed commentary on the damaging effects of Euro-American settlement on American Indian nations confined on government reservations. Seated upon a windblown horse, Fraser's figure slumps over despondently, embodying the physical exhaustion and suffering of a people forcefully driven to the end of the trail.
Fraser's sculpture has been interpreted in various ways: while some critics regarded the Indian's decline as a necessary step in America's westward "march of progress," others have viewed the work as a remorseful indictment of "the national stupidity that has greedily and cruelly destroyed a race of people possessing imagination, integrity, fidelity and nobility," as an unnamed critic wrote in Touchstone in 1920. The sculpture continues to resonate with audiences in the twenty-first century, taking on new meanings and new forms in the digital age. I spoke with contemporary painter and sculptor Jeffrey Gibson about Fraser's End of the Trail, a work he describes as "having a very ambivalent relationship with over the years." Born in Colorado Springs, Jeffrey is half Cherokee and a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. His American Indian heritage together with his formal training as an artist—at both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Royal College of Art in London—have shaped his perspective on this work of art.
Shannon Vittoria: When did you first encounter Fraser's End of the Trail?
Jeffrey Gibson: I remember visiting the Cherokee gift shop as a kid, where there were small novelty versions of the sculpture for sale. At the time, I saw it as an image of a shamed, defeated Indian. It always made me feel badly about myself, and I wondered if this was this really how the rest of the world viewed us, as failures. It seemed to be an image about defeat and despair.
Shannon Vittoria: When did your perception of this work begin to change?
Jeffrey Gibson: Over the years, I went to powwows with my family, where I saw End of the Trail screen-printed on flags that were used in ceremonies honoring veterans and prisoners of war. There was a comparison being made between the veteran and the warrior, and this brought up conflicting feelings and emotions in me. As I was growing up, I would talk to people about the image, yet no one seemed to know where it originated. It was a symbol that had lost its point of origin, but one that had been completely reinvented in a Native context. This left a strong impression on me, and I found it amazing that this image could embody new meaning under different circumstances.
Shannon Vittoria: How has this altered your interpretation of the work?
Jeffrey Gibson: Looking at the work now, I can accept why it has become such a popular, iconic sculpture. I have come to see it as a symbol of resilience and strength—characteristics traditionally associated with the warrior. I no longer see this as the end or as defeat. Instead, I see a warrior who is taking a break before getting back up again. There is a degree of lament, but there is also a strong sense of honor and determination.
Shannon Vittoria: As an abstract artist, you have said that you are not typically drawn to figurative work, but what compositional impression does End of the Trail have on you?
Jeffrey Gibson: As an artist, seeing this work in person, it has a very strong formal appeal. It is an incredibly beautiful sculpture, and I was struck by its powerful presence. When you look at the work closely, you can see the level of detail that went into modeling the figure's body and his clothing, and you begin to feel as if this is a real person, described very specifically by the artist. Fraser also captured a great sense of motion, which you see in the warrior's braids and the horse's tail that are blown by a gust of wind. The more I look at this bronze, the more complex and difficult it becomes. You have to engage with this work on multiple levels in order to truly appreciate its complexity.
On Friday, February 21, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Jeffrey Gibson will be participating in the Met's series Artists on Artworks, sharing his perspective on several of the sculptures featured in The American West in Bronze, 1850–1925. Don't miss this opportunity to experience the exhibition through the eyes of an artist.