If you ever make it to Oklahoma City make it a point to visit the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Formerly the Cowboy Hall of Fame don’t let its name and location fool you, there is something for everyone inside the gates.
The Cowboy Museum, as it is known by its shortened name, has more than just cowboys and rodeos. Some of the finest western art–both historic and contemporary–is collected here either in their permanent collections or in the yearly contemporary exhibits which contain pieces that you can purchase if you are on the high end of art collecting.
The historic pieces are exhibited in galleries that do not allow photography, but through there website you can get a few teasing examples such as Bierstadt’s Emigrants Crossing the Plains, and Alfred Jacob Miller’s Cavalcade is there as well, in addition to Audubon’s eagle and catfish.
|Emigrants Crossing the Plains, Albert Bierstadt
|Cavalcade, Alfred Jacob Miller
There are enormous collections for Frederic Remington and Charles Russell works, including a single casting Remington made for a patron, and a rifle that belonged to a friend of Russell’s. After complaining about a bad day of hunting Russell took the rifle and etched bear, elk, and bison onto the receiver and told him “Now, you’ll always have fresh meat in sight.” Remington’s arch-nemesis Charles Schreyvogel has an gallery as well. At one point Remington came out in the newspaper criticizing Schreyvogel’s painting Custer’s Demand about numerous points of fact. One of the men depicted in the meeting and Custer’s widow spoke out for Schreyvogal’s authenticity and the Remington dropped the matter. In the collection/archives at the Cowboy Museum there is a letter that President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Elizabeth Custer claiming that Remington “Had been a perfect Jack” about the whole thing.
If you are more into sculpture the museum has you covered. There are scores of bronzes from those mentioned above, but their larger than life pieces are worth going to see. You are greeted by Hollis Williford’s Welcome Sundown.
Once inside James Earle Fraser’s iconic End of the Trail is your first experience. This is the original plaster cast that Fraser created in 1915. It was meant to be cast into bronze but the First World War brought a metal shortage so it remained in this form. It was moved to the Cowboy Museum in the 1960s and to its present location during the update and renovation of the museum in the 1980s. Fraser is also famous as the artist that designed the American “Buffalo” or “Indian Head” nickel.
Fraser’s Abraham Lincoln is also housed in the Cowboy Museum, along with a reminder that Lincoln was more than just a Civil War and Emancipation president. With his signature on the Homestead Act in 1862, he opened the floodgates to the West. A million families of settlers flowed in the “empty” west before 1910.
There are also several monumental sculptures around the grounds that are also quite stunning. Below are a few, but you can see the rest here.
There is plenty of room inside for sculptures of this size indoors as well. Canyon Princess by Gerald Balciar is a beautiful animal piece made of the same marble as the Lincoln Memorial no less.
If you are looking for a more authentic and actual cowboy experience not provided by art or art history there are numerous galleries filled with all kinds of cowboy gear from bits and bridles to chaps and brands. If you want to know anything about the 4,283,836 (completely made up number, but there are A. LOT.) of barbed wire (pronounced “bobwar” in many counties) then this is the place for you.
There are by far more than two saddles, but you will need to go yourself to see what it is you are looking for.
If the TV and film west was more a part of your childhood than actual cowboy work, you won’t be disappointed in that collection either. Their memorabilia runs from the earliest western films up through the fairly recent. Including a short little film narrated by Sam Elliot (who else?) describing the history of “The Western.”
| James Arness’ Marshall Dillon wardrobe
|Marshall Dillon’s hat.
| Chess Knight of Silver on Paladin’s traveling gun.
|One of a few, they said the one that was actually wired with lights came with burn holes in it.
|Tom Selleck’s saddle and outback hat from Quigley Down Under
| Sam Elliot, Conagher, Louis L’amour book/movie
|Daniel Day-Lewis There Will be Blood
As I mentioned above one of the neatest things the museum does if the continuation of the western art tradition by hosting new large galleries filled with modern american west artwork. Even the artwork in the gift shop is stunning.
Photography is not allowed in this exhibit, but thanks to the winnings being posted online I can share a couple of my favorites and a page on the artist that made them. I have always liked the anachronistic, mismatched, or false grouped images. Anything where it shouldn’t be and imagined meetings of several famous people playing horseshoes or something have been the images that I have gravitated towards in modern context. My two favorites in this past exhibit do both. Martin Grelle’s In Two Worlds is one of those iconic native in white clothing images that we are all familiar with. Most of the top hats I saw before studying the Gilded Age were worn by Native Americans.
|In Two Worlds, Marin Grelle, see it and more here.
One that got a full HA! as I saw it was Bruce Greene’s Wall Street From the Saddle Seat. I love it not only because it used that same trope, but because it turns the myth into the native. Civilization has come to the cowboy. Even the romantic ideal has started to vanish.
|Wall Street from the Saddle Seat, Bruce Greene, see it and more here
The Cowboy Museum houses more than you think, more than I thought for sure. We’ve lived a half hour a way for two and a half years and only went this week as part of my Art History class. It was worth the wait not only to see what was there, but to go through it with my professor who was the director there from around 1986 to 1996. He said that moving Fraser’s End of the Trail to its present position was “The longest day of my life.” They moved it all in one piece by crane over trees and through a giant window. Moving it was the quickest part, it took two hours to get it off the original pedestal and balanced properly in the crane straps and four hours to get it installed on its new pedestal. When it was shipped to the museum in 1968 it was cut in to 5 or 6 pieces and rebuilt.
There is much more to do in OKC than really meets the eye. Many people miss things like this because it is flyover state. If you happen to be in the area add this museum to your itinerary. If you are looking for something new to see or a new place to visit, make it a stop on your cross country drive. It’s worth it. Only this historical galleries are static, and there is always something going on there with artists’ talks and new exhibits.
A final thought is I can never go into any kind of museum that features galleries of art of any kind and not think about the Dire Straits song In the Gallery. I hear it even more loudly in a space that highlights western art because the first line is “Harry made a bareback rider, proud and free, upon a horse…”It is definitely something to think about especially in a place that contains paintings of the American West from the 1830s and paintings and sculpture still being created about the same subject.