The Met Opens THE AMERICAN WEST IN BRONZE Exhibit Today
At the turn of the 20th century, artistic representations of American Indians, cowboys and cavalry, pioneers and prospectors, and animals of the plains and the mountains served as visual metaphors for the Old West and, as such, were collected eagerly by an urban-based clientele. Through some 65 bronze sculptures by 28 artists, the traveling exhibition The American West in Bronze, 1850-1925, opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on December 18, will explore the aesthetic and cultural impulses behind the creation of statuettes with American western themes so popular with audiences then and now. It is the first full-scale museum exhibition devoted to the subject and brings together examples from public and private collections nationwide.
The exhibition is made possible by The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and the Enterprise Holdings Endowment.
It was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the Denver Art Museum.
In addition to representative sculptures by such archetypal artists as Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, the exhibition will explore the work of sculptors who infrequently pursued western subjects-such as James Earle Fraser and Paul Manship-yet profoundly informed widespread appreciation of the American bronze statuette. The American West in Bronze, 1850-1925 will offer a fresh and balanced look at the multifaceted roles played by these sculptors in creating three-dimensional interpretations of western life, whether those interpretations are based on historical fact, mythologized fiction, or, most often, something in-between.
Although the 28 artists represented in the exhibition are bound together by their use of bronze, they are distinguished by varying life experiences. Alexander Phimister Proctor and Solon Hannibal Borglum, for instance, grew up in the West, and that first-hand experience informed their work, even after the artists had moved to cosmopolitan centers, especially New York and Paris. Some resided in the West their entire lives-notably Russell, who settled in Montana-punctuated only by brief travels east or abroad. Others, such as Edward Kemeys and Charles Schreyvogel, were transitory explorers, ethnologists, and front-line recorders of the western experience. Still others rarely traveled west of the Mississippi River-Frederic William MacMonnies, for example, spent most of his career in France.
Despite inherent differences, these sculptors collectively glorified an Old West past of Indians and wildlife, cowboys and pioneers, in marked contrast to the gritty realities of industrialization and immigration then altering East Coast cities and pushing inexorably westward. Remington no doubt spoke for many of his colleagues when in 1907 he stated, "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."
Many of these sculptors were rigorously trained in academies in New York and Paris, and they applied sophisticated French-inspired sculptural techniques to depicting human and animal subjects in statuettes that were celebrated at home and abroad as authentically American. Those artists who were self-taught similarly achieved a naturalistic treatment of form and a lively play of light and shadow in their bronze representations of life in the western states and territories. Indeed, the confluence of thematic, technical, and aesthetic innovations resulted in bronze sculptures that mediated between eastern and western, old and new, cosmopolitan and roughhewn.
The development of fine art bronze casting in America is traced through the works displayed in this exhibition. Unlike marble, which was quarried in Europe and shipped across the ocean at great expense, bronze-an alloy composed of copper, with lesser amounts of tin, zinc, and lead-became readily available in the United States following the establishment of the earliest art bronze foundries around 1850. Because of its accessibility and relatively low cost, bronze came to be considered both as an American material and a democratic one. The exhibition will include many compositions that would not be possible in marble, featuring such extremely challenging depictions in bronze as the astonishingly realistic representation of a bison's furry coat or a fleet-footed horse and rider suspended in mid-air, supported only by a trailing bison hide. Bronze was particularly well suited to the complex compositions, textural variety, physical action, and narrative detail of these western works.