“The Western bronze statuette was eagerly collected by the urban populace at the turn of the 20th century,” said Thomas Smith, director of the Petrie Institute of American Art at the Denver Art Museum, as he introduced “The American West in Bronze, 1850-1925,” which opened May 11 and runs until Aug. 31.
Smith is co-curator of the first in-depth survey of this popular genre of American art. Thayer Tolles of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was the other curator, and the two have written a companion catalog for the show, which contains 72 bronze sculptures by 28 artists, borrowed from across the U.S.
Some of these works were models for larger pieces made for public art: “Indians on the mantel and in the park,” as another catalog essay noted.
The sculptures are carefully displayed and lighted in the Gallagher Family Gallery on the first floor of the museum, so it's easy to see the touch of the sculptor's hand in textures and details. Murals on the walls show how some works were translated into monumental public art.
The bronzes are grouped by subject: Indians, cowboys, cavalry, pioneers and prospectors, as well as animals of the plains and mountains.
Each piece tells a story of the early West, although some of these artists started portraying Western characters from studios in New York before they visited the scene. Some found models for wildlife at the Bronx Zoo and other zoos.
By 1850, there were foundries opened in the U.S. where bronzes could be cast. Prior to that time, molds were sent to Europe for casting, which added time and expense to the process.
A large work at the entrance is by Alexander Phimister Proctor, who studied in Paris, but created images of the American West. Pieces were made by sand casting until 1900, Smith said, when the lost wax method became popular.
A video of the lost wax process is shown. It was shot at the Metropolitan Museum and shows the process for making a mold of an equestrian figure of Theodore Roosevelt and readying it to go to the foundry in sections.
Two editions of Frederic Remington's “Bronco Buster” show how he added motion to figures, Smith said, also pointing out his “Cheyenne.” “Bronco Buster” was repeated in 150 editions.
A contrasting figure is Paul Manship's 1926 figure of a running Indian in a sleek style that signaled the beginning of modern art. It looks almost Art Deco, a new era in sculpture.
Wildlife was already vanishing in the West and images such as “A Lament” helped with the rise of the conservation movement.
Figures of pioneer women became popular at the start of women's suffrage movement. (The women's vote started in the West.)
There is a sculpture studio open near the gallery where visitors can explore traditional and contemporary practices. On Saturdays, a professional sculptor will be in residence to demonstrate and talk with children and adults.
If you go:
The Denver Art Museum is on 13th Avenue between Broadway and Acoma Street in downtown Denver. It is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and until 8 p.m. on Fridays. “The American West in Bronze” is included in general admission. There is an exhibition audio guide available. Denverartmuseum.org, 720-913-0130.