History on a Pedestal

The Metropolitan Museum of Art shows how the American West was bronzed.

Alexander Phimister Proctor, Slim, 1914 (cast 1915 or after) 11 7/8 x 10 x 5 inches.

Alexander Phimister Proctor, Slim, 1914 (cast 1915 or after) 11 7/8 x 10 x 5 inches.

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It is typical of the so-called Old West that it began to turn into legend before it was even over. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, a genuine Old West character, originally an Army scout and commissary supplier, started putting on his famous Wild West circus shows in 1872, while the Indian Wars were still raging. By 1884, a mere eight years after Sioux chief Sitting Bull was defeated in battle by the U.S. Cavalry, he was exhibiting himself as an attraction on Cody’s stage. Along with this instant legend manufacturing came a sense of nostalgia and regret; the word “vanishing” inevitably attached itself to both the cowboy and the Indian. In 1907, the painter and sculptor Frederic Remington, who specialized in Western themes, wrote, “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.” Bronze sculpture, inherently monumental and commemorative, was the perfect medium to express these feelings about the American West.

Bronzes by Remington, and by artists as diverse as Charles M. Russell, Paul Manship, Adolph Alexander Weinman, and Alexander Phimister Proctor, among others, are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through April 13, in a show titled “The American West in Bronze, 1850–1925.” (After it closes at the Met, it travels to the Denver Art Museum, which co-curated it and where it will run May 11–August 31.) That such an exhibition is being mounted by an old-line East Coast institution is not incongruous but perfectly appropriate in terms of cultural history—in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the heroic tropes of Western art were not seen as kitschy or un-prestigious in any way. Remington, for one, was represented in his heyday by the ultra-blue-chip New York dealer Knoedler & Co. Even if a further century of hindsight has made today’s viewers a little harder to persuade, many of these sculptures are masterpieces of technique, observation, and emotion-conveying power.

The Broncho Buster (1895), Remington’s most famous sculpture, is here, the wild horse eternally frozen on its hind legs, the cowboy in woolly chaps letting the reins go slack as he prepares to hit the crazed animal with a branding iron. So is The Cheyenne (1896), Remington’s sympathetic portrayal of an Indian warrior in a more harmonious relationship to his horse, hugging it with his legs while gripping a long spear in one hand. Russell, like Remington a painter turned sculptor (and unlike the city-slicking Remington, a former practicing cowboy), gives us Smoking Up (1904), a characteristically fun-loving take on the cowboy, who exuberantly shoots his pistol into the air, hat cocked, bandanna around his neck whirling to one side, and his horse rearing up in a gesture of defiance not to the rider but to the whole non-cowboy world.

Portrayals of the Indians varied significantly over the years, though they were almost always admiring rather than demeaning. The earliest piece in the show, Henry Kirke Brown’s Choosing of the Arrow (1849), turns an Indian warrior into a Greek kouros who has apparently borrowed Diana’s bow and quiver for the day. Weinman’s Chief Blackbird, the Ogallala Sioux (1903), takes a diametrically opposite approach—the German-born artist has done a true portrait, in bust format, that shows sadness, pride, and resilience in every crease of the old man’s face; the headdress, braids, and necklace are observed with anthropological care. Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s Moqui Prayer for Rain (1895–98) strives to be anthropological in its depiction of the Hopi (formerly called Moqui) snake dance ritual, but it ends up being dramatic rather than hieratic. James Earle Fraser could be accused of trading in stereotypes with his End of the Trail (1918), except that he got there first with this pathetic image of an Indian rider drooping over the withers of an equally downcast horse, their dual exhaustion symbolizing the inevitable, though regrettable, end of a culture deemed Darwinianly unfit for the modern age.

Animals were favorite subjects for Western bronze masters. One of the best animaliers among them was Proctor, a Canadian-born Westerner and avid hunter who called himself the “sculptor in buckskin.” Proctor’s Stalking Panther (1891–93) is a truly wonderful rendering on par with a Rembrandt Bugatti—the jaws, paws, and swishing tail of the cat are so real and powerful that the bronze breathes. Henry Merwin Shrady’s Buffalo (1899), imbues utter stasis with energy; it’s a marvel of texture in which the stolid beast’s curly mane seems to merge with the spiky earth on which it plants its feet. Manship’s Indian Hunter and His Dog (1926) is the latest work in the Met’s show, and its lively rendering of the youth running in harmony with the animal is done in an Art Deco style that seems to leave the Old West—and everything old, stiff, and doomed—behind.

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: March 2014