‘Playing Cowboy’: America's fascination with the ‘Wild West’


The American West captured the public imagination at the close of the 1800s. In that industrial age, it was not really very wild any more, but nostalgia and fantasy for its past burned bright. Visual and performing arts and commerce were drawn to it, and in their productions and material culture shaped views of people of the West, especially of cowboys and Native Americans. “Playing Cowboy,” in the Pizzagalli Center for Arts and Education at Shelburne Museum, explores themes of cowboys and Indians in turn-of-the-20th century art, including in traveling performances, products and advertising. From posters and film of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” extravaganzas to popular glassware to bronze sculptures by Frederic Remington, the exhibition brings together a broad and spectacular selection of historical objects and images, shedding light on depictions of cowboys and Native Americans and sparking dialogue and curiosity. The exhibition gives visitors a rich visual experience and also opportunity to reflect on myths and realities of the American West. “Playing Cowboy,” in the Colgate Gallery, is accompanied by “In the Garden” in the Murphy Gallery. The latter features fine art, textiles, jewelry, and the bodies of actual insects. It explores various ways flowers and bugs have captivated artists’ imaginations over the last five centuries. “Playing Cowboy,” explains Kory Rogers, Shelburne Museum’s curator, “focuses on the instrumental role Buffalo Bill Cody and his dramatic live performances played in shaping our understanding of the mythological American cowboy and the Wild West. Using Cody’s life, career, and legacy as the connecting threads,  “Playing Cowboy” charts the popularity of Wild West Shows from their zenith at the turn of the century to their nadir in the early 1930s.” In “Playing Cowboy,” Shelburne Museum brings together selections from its incredibly rich collections, giving viewers opportunities to see and appreciate these diverse objects in a fresh context. The exhibition opens with an array of posters and a 1909-10 archival film of “Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West” touring show. As one exuberant poster points out, Cody was a horseback mail messenger at age 12 in 1857, a scout under General Sherman in 1865, an accomplished buffalo hunter (thus the moniker) in 1872, and launched the “first professional exhibition of the Wild West” in Omaha Nebraska in 1883. The “Wild West” traveled around the country and abroad. Performances featured sharpshooters – even occasional women sharpshooters including Annie Oakley – action and thrills, horses, cattle, lassos, and stunts. Some included enactments of triumphs over Native Americans. The shows were wildly popular. The posters and film in “Playing Cowboy” give audiences a look at the stereotyped portrayals of cowboys and Native Americans they brought to the enthusiastic public. The exhibit offers a deeper perspective on these myths and stereotypes through a range of artwork and objects of that time. N.C. Wyeth’s “Hungry, but Stern, on the Depot Platform” (1905) portrays Bill Germaine, a wild and rugged looking fellow, who had forsaken his New Jersey life to make it on the frontier. As the caption explains, it didn’t work out. The West of popular imagination had already changed. Carl Rungius’s “Two Cowboys in the Saddle” depicts pair of John Wayne-like men sitting high on their horses, surveying the western expanses, a romantic painting dating from just after World War I. Three of four bronzes in the show, by Frederic Remington, James E. Fraser and Charles Marion Russell, capture spectacular stunt-like moments in cowboy life. In Remington’s “The Rattlesnake” (1905), as the horse rears up, the cowboy defies gravity, holding onto his horse and onto his hat. The fourth bronze, Fraser’s heart wrenching “The End of the Trail” depicts a weary Native American astride his mount. The caption notes Fraser’s inspiration: “He recalled once hearing a discussion between his grandfather and an old trapper friend who said, ‘The Indians will someday be pushed into the Pacific Ocean.’ Several years later, at the age of 17, Fraser said, ‘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.’” “Playing Cowboy” shows a range of depictions of Native Americans in visual arts, products, and advertising of the era. A set of hand-painted lithographs, copies of mid-1800s portraits, depicts chiefs of Sioux, Ioway, Fox and other tribes. On the commercial end, Native American images were widely appropriated to sell products. Kickapoo Sagwa Patent Medicine purported to be an Indian remedy that promoted virility and heartiness. Westward Ho! glassware, with its Manifest Destiny decoration, featured a kneeling brave, tomahawk lowered. Five of the museum’s handsome cigar store sculptures are in the exhibition, reminding viewers that for consumers of that era, Native Americans seemed compelling branding for tobacco products.   Shelburne Museum The Shelburne Museum presents “Playing Cowboy” (Colgate Gallery), through Oct. 21, and “In the Garden” (Murphy Gallery), through Aug. 26, in the museum’s Pizzagalli Center for Arts and Education, 6000 Shelburne Road in Shelburne. Hours are: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; admission (good for 2 consecutive days) is $25, $23 for seniors, $15 for college students, $14 for ages 13-17, $12 for ages 5-12 (under 5 free); $15 for Vermont residents (with license), $8 for ages 5-17; active military free. For information, call 802-985-3346, or go online to https://shelburnemuseum.org.

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