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Solon H. Borglum

Sioux Indian Buffalo Dance, 1904

Bronze

Modern cast

Gift of the Solon H. Borglum Sculpture and Education Fund

1974.69

Solon Hannibal Borglum (1868-1922)
Sioux Indian Buffalo Dance

The son of Danish immigrants who settled on the great plains, Solon Borglum spent his early years as a rancher in western Nebraska. Though he later lived in Paris and New York and achieved a reputation as one of America's best sculptors, it was his depiction of frontier life, and especially his experience with cowboys and native American peoples, on which his reputation was founded.

Like his contemporaries Frederic Remington, Charles Marion Russell, and others, Borglum found his subjects in the mythical, vanished frontier. The last battle between the government and the Indians had been fought in 1890; with native tribes on reservations, they no longer posed a threat to white settlers. Americans now expressed a nostalgia for the frontier past and a slightly guilty conscience for their past treatment of the "noble savage." Set against this historical backdrop, Indian lore, dress, and customs became a fertile theme in all the arts—sculpture, painting, literature, and later film.

Borglum first used the frontier as a subject for his art when he made sketches of daily ranch life. After his older brother Gutzon (who later became famous as the creator of Mount Rushmore) encouraged him to pursue art rather than ranching, Solon enrolled at the Cincinnati Art Academy. By 1898 he was studying in Paris at the Académie Julian and was exhibiting sculptural groups of wild horses at the Paris Salon.

Borglum married in 1898, and he and his wife, Emma, spent the summer of 1899 at the Sioux reservation at Crow Creek, South Dakota. One of the couple's most memorable events from that summer was the tribe's performance of the Buffalo Dance. Imploring the Great Spirit to return buffalo to the prairie, the tribe enacted a buffalo hunt: the medicine men took the roles of the buffalo while other men of the reservation pursued them and the women imitated the neighing of horses. Four years later, Borglum portrayed the ritual in The Sioux Indian Buffalo Dance. A medicine man, hooded and cloaked in buffalo hide, crouches low to the ground, poised to make a mighty leap. Behind him are the figures of an old man chanting and beating the drum and a tall brave wearing a ceremonial headdress.

In its asymmetrical composition, Sioux Indian Buffalo Dance is typical of Borglum's style, as is the suggestion of the environment in which the event is taking place and the careful attention to costume and accessories rendered with historical accuracy. While Borglum shows a thorough academic knowledge of human anatomy, his impressionistic rendering of sculptural form sometimes led critics to compare him to Auguste Rodin.

The work was conceived as part of a series of four sculptures (with The Pioneer in a Storm, Cowboy at Rest, and Steps Toward Civilization) on the theme of civilization moving west. The four works were cast in staff (plaster mixed with straw) at life size and were prominently displayed in 1904 at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Smaller casts of the figures were displayed at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon, in 1905; and at the Panama-Pacific World's Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. The works consistently received positive critical notice, even in the European press.

The New Britain sculpture is one of three casts made in the 1960s to mark the centennial of the sculptor's birth. The castings were done by the Roman Bronze Works, New York, under the auspices of Borglum's descendants for the Solon H. Borglum Sculpture and Education Fund, Wilton, Connecticut.

For further reading:

Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968)
A. Mervyn Davies, Solon H. Borglum: "A Man Who Stands Alone" (Chester, Conn.: Pequot Press, 1974)

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This essay has been condensed from a larger manuscript written by David B. Dearinger for the museum's collection catalogue.