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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Bronze Statuettes of the American West, 1850–1915

The American West—land west of the Mississippi River in the continental United States—inspired artists of all media—painters, photographers, illustrators, and sculptors—to explore its vast thematic potential. While many artists focused on the breathtaking beauty of the natural landscape, sculptors working in three dimensions were drawn to human and animal subjects. Sculptural representations of life in western states and territories focused on the daily experiences of the inhabitants, Native American ritual and dress, man’s relationship with beast, and animals as forces of uncivilized nature. The resulting bronze statuettes were eagerly collected by an urban-based American public hungry for art and literature mythologizing the West, first as an American Eden and later as vanquished wilderness.

Henry Kirke Brown and John Quincy Adams Ward completed among the earliest bronze sculptures of the American West, answering a call for American subjects by American artists. Their bronzes were intended as expressions of national identity, subjects uniquely American that differentiated the United States from Europe and proclaimed the young nation worthy and fertile ground for artistic production. In 1848, Brown traveled to Mackinac Island in Michigan to observe the Ottawa and Chippewa at trading posts, creating drawings and sculptures (1992.372; 2005.405) based on his experiences. Ward ventured beyond the Mississippi, in 1864 traveling to the Dakotas to produce studies for the enlargement of his Indian Hunter (1973.257), installed in New York’s Central Park four years later.

By the late nineteenth century, the concept of “the vanishing West” drove many sculptors to record their perceptions of western life. The march of “civilization” across American plains and peaks to the Pacific Ocean was conceived of as “Manifest Destiny,” the notion that continental expansion by Euro-Americans was preordained in order to spread democratic principles as well as social and economic “progress.” The California Gold Rush of 1848 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 hastened the inevitable exploration and settlement of land coast to coast and resulted in the displacement of Native American and Hispanic civilizations. As Frederic Remington wrote: “I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever… and the more I considered the subject, the bigger the forever loomed.”

As miners and settlers went west, so too did artists, joining government or private expeditions, or journeying on their own. Some sculptors, such as Edward Kemeys and Hermon Atkins MacNeil, were transitory explorers, ethnologists, and recorders of the western experience. During the 1890s, MacNeil traveled frequently from Chicago to the Southwest to observe Native American life. His western sculptures—several modeled while he was in Rome (1978.513.6; 19.126)—combine his interpretations of Native American culture with the grace and grandeur of classical statuary. Other sculptors—brothers Gutzon and Solon Borglum (07.104), Alexander Phimister Proctor, and Charles Marion Russell—grew up in the West and their artwork was informed by life experience. For all of their time spent in the West, many of these sculptors were rigorously trained in art academies in New York and Paris. They melded a French-inspired naturalistic aesthetic of textured surfaces and lively forms with readily identifiable American subjects.

Representations of animals were particularly popular and served as documents of indigenous American wildlife. Edward Kemeys, America’s first animal sculptor, traveled on bison-hunting expeditions in the early 1870s before studying in Paris, where he was influenced by the work of the great French animalier Antoine-Louis Barye (10.108.1a,b). Kemeys’ bronzes—from bears to bison to panthers (07.81)—are remarkable for both their physical detail and emotional resonance. Alexander Phimister Proctor also specialized in animals as powerful reminders of the vanishing West. He popularized animal sculpture in his monumental works for zoos, parks, and plazas, and in finely wrought statuettes, all of which captured the elemental behavior of animals in their natural habitats (1996.561).

Frederic Remington’s bravado paintings, illustrations, and sculptures played to public imagination by capturing the colorful drama and perils of the masculine frontier experience, from the working cowboy to the roaming brave. The emotional appeal of his art lay in a rough-and-tumble vision of the American West fueled in part by fantasy—for instance, Buffalo Bill’s traveling Wild West Show—and in part by historical reality—cattle drives and confrontations between settlers and Native Americans. Based in New York, Remington started his career as an illustrator, turning to sculpture of western themes (07.79; 07.80) in 1895. Remington’s Broncho Buster (39.65.45; 1986.81.2), a cowboy taming a wild horse, was one of the most sought-after of all American statuettes, with more than 300 authorized bronze casts produced. Likewise, Charles M. Russell’s paintings and sculptures glorified the innocent Old West past of cowboys, trappers, and Native Americans, a marked contrast to the realities of industrialization and immigration then transforming East Coast cities.

Other sculptors offered sympathetic, even remorseful, views of the decline of Native American nations. Between 1889 and 1891, Olin Levi Warner created a nostalgic series of medallion portraits of Native Americans (06.313), who were by then confined to the reservation lands granted to their nations by the United States government. Sculptors such as Cyrus Dallin (2013.441), James Earle Fraser (2010.73), and Hermon Atkins MacNeil (39.65.54a,b) created sensitive representations of Native Americans diminished by white expansionist policies, in effect protesting their unjust treatment. Though dispossessed, they are presented as dignified, whether in poses of defiance or defeat.