In 1897, artist Solon Hannibal Borglum moved to Paris to study sculpture at the Académie Julian. Born in Utah Territory in 1868, Borglum had worked as a rancher in Nebraska before pursuing a career in art in the early 1890s. While abroad, he cultivated his identity as a "cowboy artist," capitalizing on the widespread popularity of the American West in France. In this photograph of Borglum's Paris studio, the artist and his aunt are surrounded by symbols of his western heritage—from the saddle, tack, and lasso in the foreground to the American Indian textiles displayed on the walls. Borglum modeled several western-themed works while in Paris, including Lassoing Wild Horses (below) and On the Border of White Man's Land, which were exhibited at the Salon of 1898 and the Exposition Universelle of 1900, respectively, earning him the epithet "sculptor of the prairie."
Borglum was not the only "cowboy artist" working in Paris in the 1890s. American sculptors Cyrus Edwin Dallin and Alexander Phimister Proctor crafted similar identities while studying abroad. Furnishing their studios with equestrian equipment and American Indian artifacts, they also often dressed the part, wearing cowboy hats and western apparel in the capital of haute couture.
I spoke with Emily Burns, Assistant Professor of Art History at Auburn University and a former Douglass Foundation Fellow in the Metropolitan's American Wing (2010–12). She is researching the practices of cowboy artists in Paris as part of her current book project on the reception of the American West in France between 1867 and 1914. "Although France's fascination with the American West has a long history, dating back to the early nineteenth century, the cowboy became a popular figure in the 1890s, following the arrival of Buffalo Bill's Wild West in Paris in 1889," Emily explained. "Artists such as Borglum, Dallin, and Proctor capitalized on the popularity of the cowboy within France, playing up their connections to this 'exotic' American character to incite foreign curiosity in their work," she said.
While all three artists were born in the West, they exaggerated and enhanced their cowboy personas while in Paris. "These artists were very savvy about marketing themselves and their work," Emily noted, "and they constructed identities as rugged, virile cowboys—the new stereotypical American man popularized by Buffalo Bill Cody—in order to perpetuate a notion of American identity abroad." It was also a means by which these artists could differentiate themselves from their European contemporaries. "Even as early as 1867, American artists in Paris were encouraged to pursue western subjects in order to draw attention to their works at the Salon and at the Universal Expositions," Emily said. "Paris was a proving ground for these artists, yet they also aimed to intervene in the international art world by adopting western subjects, often presenting them in new and unique ways." The combination of technical skill, compositional dynamism, and distinctly American subjects—as seen in works such Borglum's Lassoing Wild Horses—was an important American contribution to the international art world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Interestingly, Borglum, Dallin, and Proctor never intended to remain in Paris, instead returning to the United States to establish their careers. "These artists went to France to obtain a stamp of approval," Emily noted, "and their time in Paris should be understood as a stepping stone on their path toward professionalization." As cowboys abroad, they took advantage of the French fascination with the American West, exhibiting western-themed works that earned them popular and critical acclaim, ultimately launching their success back at home.
Correction: March 5, 2014
The blog posted on February 26, 2014, incorrectly identified the female figure in the photograph of Solon Borglum's Paris studio as the artist's wife Emma Borglum. An inscription written by the artist's daughter Monica Borglum Davies on the back of the photograph (located in the Solon H. Borglum and Borglum Family Papers, 1864–2002, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.) identifies the female figure as the artist's aunt. The inscription also confirms that the photograph was taken in 1898. Special thanks to Karen Brooks, Department Assistant (Publications & Research), Petrie Institute of Western American Art, Denver Art Museum, for locating this photograph and correctly identifying Borglum's aunt.
Correction: August 21, 2017
Recent research returns the attribution of the female sitter in the photograph to Emma Borglum, wife of the artist Solon Borglum, based on the similarity of her likeness to a contemporaneous portrait painted in Paris by Alpheus Cole. The artist's aunt was in fact based in Freemont, Nebraska, at this time. Thanks to Emily Burns and Peter Hassrick for documenting the attribution and bringing it to our attention.
For more information on American artists in Paris in the late nineteenth century, see "Americans in Paris" on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.