William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody forever impacted the American imagination with the Wild West shows that he introduced in 1893. Thriving for three decades, Cody’s traveling outdoor entertainments, which spawned numerous imitators and perpetuated a mythology that life in the American West was one of high drama and theatrical spectacle. This exhibition explores how the genre of western entertainments impacted American visual culture, from popular posters and calendars, to fine art drawings, paintings, and sculpture.
Original posters advertising Wild West shows along with historic photographs of star performers provide a sense of the original outdoor entertainments of the early twentieth century. Features of the genre included recreations of wagon trains, attacks by American Indians, and the Pony Express, while skill acts displayed Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley performing sharp shooting, roping, and riding. The work of historical painters and sculptors like Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, as well as contemporary photographers such as David Levinthal, incorporates performance qualities into western subjects. This exhibition reveals the influence of the Wild West shows on these and other artists whose western subject matter gives a nod toward theatricality. In doing so, they expanded—and continue to do so—the deep mythology that imbues the American West.