The sculpture Pioneer Woman in the current exhibition The American West in Bronze, 1850–1925 caught my attention because it depicts a woman. Before you roll your eyes and claim that I am stating the obvious, bear with me! The field of American Western art is dominated by renditions of men and animals, so Bryant Baker's sculpture offers a unique approach to capturing the West. The very fact that Pioneer Woman focuses on a pioneer woman makes it noteworthy, but the meaning of the work is more elusive than just its subject matter.
The image seems to be one of traditionalism. For example, her Bible represents her loyalty to her faith and, more prominently, her grip on her young son's hand suggests her position as a caregiver. Her husband may be away hunting for food or building a home; by guarding her son, this woman seems to stay within the bounds of expectations for women.
Upon further examination, though, the sculpture contains deeper undercurrents of female empowerment. Dedicated ten years after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the subject strides confidently toward her future, and the look of determination on her face gives the impression that this pioneer can handle any challenge. Perhaps her courage—to fulfill her maternal duties, to make a life for herself in the West, and to charge ahead in the twentieth century—is what makes this pioneer woman a true pioneer.
The exhibition closes on April 13, 2014. Don't miss it!