‘The Bronco Buster’ (1895) by Frederic Remington
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Walk around Cody, Wyoming – or Durango, Colorado, or any of the gorgeously situated diorama towns of the Old West – and you’ll bump into a bronze buffalo. And not just one: every news-stand, gallery and holiday rental overflows with statuettes of stallions, cowpokes, scouts and braves. Painted prairie vistas and mountain sunsets are so ubiquitous that they practically merge with the real thing.

It would be easy, when you visit these adorable three-dimensional postcard places, to believe that the West has fallen in love with the kitsch version of itself. The truth is that all those broncos and Stetson-sporting riders don’t even represent a memory of the past but the memory of that memory. By the time that Frederic Remington had sculpted his first cowboy, the flesh-and-blood cowboy was already a figment of the past.

The American West in Bronze, 1850-1925 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is more than a jaunt through the phantasmagoria of Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley – although it certainly lingers over every paradigmatic cliché. The exhibition is full of idiosyncratic wonders, sculptures that express torment inflicted by weather and wounds, the hard labour of civilisation, and a life where every muscle counts. But it is also a journey into loss. The barbed wire invented in the 1880s made cowboys redundant within a decade. The open range was fenced in, the wilderness mapped and the wild horse definitively tamed. Manifest destiny unfurled, sweeping away both Native Americans and pioneers. By 1893, when historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the closing of the frontier, the West’s old hands were already peddling their yarns and recycling their skills as circus acts.

‘Chief Blackbird, the Ogalla Sioux’ (1903) by Adolph Alexander Weinman

A couple of years later, Frederic Remington sculpted his iconic “Broncho Buster” (more commonly known as “Bronco Buster”), the classic he-man straining to stay atop a pitching steed. Foot slipping from the stirrup, fingers gripping the mane, the rider brings the horse to heel. The work became an instant national sensation that shaped perceptions of the West for decades. More than 275 authorised casts were executed, and innumerable knock-offs continue to sell briskly online. You can buy a small one on Amazon for about $200, or a larger version for $1,285. Theodore Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” regiment presented him with the genuine article in 1898, to commemorate his leadership in the Spanish-American war. The sculpture normally resides at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s home on Long Island, but for now it has pride of place at the Met. Presumably, the museum could not borrow the official 1904 cast that sits in the Oval Office.

To turn-of-the-century Americans, the “Bronco Buster” represented the heroic (and successful) efforts to civilise a savage place and dominate its inhabitants, be they man or beast. Soft-skinned easterners romanticised the exploits of cowboys, miners and homesteaders, though not always in a way that evokes a misty smile today. Remington was explicit about the groups he thought needed some rough treatment. In an 1893 letter to a friend, he spewed: “Jews, Injuns, Chinamen, Italians, Huns – the rubbish of the earth I hate – I’ve got some Winchesters and when the massacring begins, I can get my share of ’em, and what’s more, I will.”

‘The Moqui Prayer for Rain’ (1895-96) by Hermon Atkins MacNeil

Remington spent years along the frontier but by the time he made the wax model for “Bronco Buster” he was back in his home state of New York. Surrounded by immigrants, factories and the buzzing hive of urban life, he mythologised the West, which beckoned as a vanishing ideal of freedom, bravery, hardiness and adventure. Reality proved disappointing when he returned briefly in 1900. “It is all brick buildings – derby hats and blue overalls – it spoils my early illusions – and they are my capital.” He could only depict what was gone. At least in art, the Stetson still ruled.

Teddy Roosevelt saw the cowboy as “the grim pioneer of his race; he prepares the way for the civilisation from before whose face he must disappear”. More than a century later, the metaphor of “Bronco Buster” has shifted. Now it looks less like a victor forcing nature to knuckle under than a desperate white man clinging to a culture that is lurching away.

Remington inspired a generation of sculptors who memorialised the open frontier. Solon Hannibal Borglum, a Nebraska rancher who trained in Paris, was the best of his cohort. (His brother Gutzon created the heads of the presidents on Mount Rushmore.) Borglum conceived his Western idyll as more of a symbiosis than Remington did. Cowboys bond emotionally with their mounts. The “Rough Rider” leans in empathically, encircling the bronco’s body with his own. In “Blizzard”, horse and rider huddle together, merging into a continuous form united against nature’s assault.

By eulogising the land before it was threaded with train tracks, telegraph wires, roads and fences, Remington & Co were following established 19th-century practice: the Barbizon school’s timeless landscapes, Jean-François Millet’s sweaty peasants, and Rosa Bonheur’s contented cows all offered an escape from modernity and its vulgar traumas.

‘Buffalo’ (1899) by Henry Merwin Shrady

The fauna of the West was fading into extinction just as quickly as the cowboy. In 1886, Roosevelt lamented: “The rapidity with which the larger kinds of game animals are being exterminated throughout the United States is really melancholy.” Artists rushed to record the dwindling breeds, and city dwellers snapped up statuettes of elk, antelope, moose and bears whose metallic flesh quivered with nostalgia. The artists who made them didn’t actually have to venture far for their models; they found all the animals they needed lounging in urban zoos along the east coast. Alexander Phimister Proctor based his magnificent “Stalking Panther” on an inmate at Central Park’s menagerie. The Bronx Zoo, which opened to the public in 1899, hosted such sculptor-naturalists as James L Clark, Eli Harvey and Henry Merwin Shrady, whose magnificent bison towers above a metaphor-laden skull. Government-sanctioned hunting had reduced the former herd of millions to a few hundred survivors. The statue of the bison – a theme no self-respecting Western artist could avoid – invoked the breed as a potent symbol of the country’s wild years.

The Met has mounted an entertaining but unwittingly bitter show: at this distance from the lone rider’s brief heyday, it exhales the secondary smoke of wistfulness. We know too much (about genocide, endangered species, battles over water, strikes, mining, sprawl, the miseries of life on reservations, the whole fraught and complex history of the West) to share in Remington’s lazy yearnings for a purer, manlier territory. Wandering among these original bronze cowboys, though, it is easy to crave such straightforward desires – to wish for the wishes of another time, and feel nostalgia for its nostalgia.

‘The American West in Bronze, 1850-1925’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until April 13 metmuseum.org

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