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American Wild Animals in Art


The hunter and the sportsman are two very different persons. The hunter
pursues animals because he loves them and sympathizes with them, and kills
them as the champions of chivalry used to slay one another--courteously,
fairly, and with admiration and respect. To stalk and shoot the elk and
the grizzly bear is to him what wooing and winning a beloved maiden would
be to another man. Far from being the foe or exterminator of the game he
follows, he, more than any one else, is their friend, vindicator, and
confidant. A strange mutual ardor and understanding unites him with his
quarry. He loves the mountain sheep and the antelope, because they can
escape him; the panther and the bear, because they can destroy him. His
relations with them are clean, generous, and manly. And on the other hand,
the wild animals whose wildness can never be tamed, whose inmost principle
of existence it is to be apart and unapproachable,--those creatures who
may be said to cease to be when they cease to be intractable,--seem, after
they have eluded their pursuer to the utmost, or fought him to the death,
to yield themselves to him with a sort of wild contentment--as if they
were glad to admit the sovereignty of man, though death come with the
admission. The hunter, in short, asks for his happiness only to be alone
with what he hunts; the sportsman, after his day's sport, must needs
hasten home to publish the size of the "bag," and to wring from his
fellow-men the glory and applause which he has not the strength and
simplicity to find in the game itself.

But if the true hunter is rare, the union of the hunter and the artist is
rarer still. It demands not only the close familiarity, the loving
observation, and the sympathy, but also the faculty of creation--the eye
which selects what is constructive and beautiful, and passes over what is
superfluous and inharmonious, and the hand skilful to carry out what the
imagination conceives. In the man whose work I am about to consider, these
qualities are developed in a remarkable degree, though it was not until he
was a man grown, and had fought with distinction through the civil war,
that he himself became aware of the artistic power that was in him. The
events of his life, could they be rehearsed here, would form a tale of
adventure and vicissitude more varied and stirring than is often found in
fiction. He has spent by himself days and weeks in the vast solitudes of
our western prairies and southern morasses. He has been the companion of
trappers and frontiersmen, the friend and comrade of Indians, sleeping
side by side with them in their wigwams, running the rapids in their
canoes, and riding with them in the hunt. He has met and overcome the
panther and the grizzly single-handed, and has pursued the flying cimmaron
to the snowy summits of the Rocky Mountains, and brought back its crescent
horns as a trophy. He has fought and slain the gray wolf with no other
weapons than his hands and teeth; and at night he has lain concealed by
lonely tarns, where the wild coyote came to patter and bark and howl at
the midnight moon. His name and achievements are familiar to the dwellers
in those savage regions, whose estimate of a man is based, not upon his
social and financial advantages, but upon what he is and can do. Yet he is
not one who wears his merit outwardly. His appearance, indeed, is
striking; tall and athletic, broad-shouldered and stout-limbed, with the
long, elastic step of the moccasined Indian, and something of the Indian's
reticence and simplicity. But he can with difficulty be brought to allude
to his adventures, and is reserved almost to the point of ingenuity on all
that concerns himself or redounds to his credit. It is only in familiar
converse with friends that the humor, the cultivation, the knowledge, and
the social charm of the man appear, and his marvellous gift of vivid and
picturesque narration discloses itself. But, in addition to all this, or
above it all, he is the only great animal sculptor of his time, the
successor of the French Barye, and (as any one may satisfy himself who
will take the trouble to compare their works) the equal of that famous
artist in scope and treatment of animal subjects, and his superior in
knowledge and in truth and power of conception. It would be a poor
compliment to call Edward Kemeys the American Barye; but Barye is the only
man whose animal sculptures can bear comparison with Mr. Kemeys's.

Of Mr. Kemeys's productions, a few are to be seen at his studio, 133 West
Fifty-third Street, New York city. These are the models, in clay or
plaster, as they came fresh from the artist's hand. From this condition
they can either be enlarged to life or colossal size, for parks or public
buildings, or cast in bronze in their present dimensions for the
enrichment of private houses. Though this collection includes scarce a
tithe of what the artist has produced, it forms a series of groups and
figures which, for truth to nature, artistic excellence, and originality,
are actually unique. So unique are they, indeed, that the uneducated eye
does not at first realize their really immense value. Nothing like this
little sculpture gallery has been seen before, and it is very improbable
that there will ever again be a meeting of conditions and qualities
adequate to reproducing such an exhibition. For we see here not merely,
nor chiefly, the accurate representation of the animal's external aspect,
but--what is vastly more difficult to seize and portray--the essential
animal character or temperament which controls and actuates the animal's
movements and behavior. Each one of Mr. Kemeys's figures gives not only
the form and proportions of the animal, according to the nicest anatomical
studies and measurements, but it is the speaking embodiment of profound
insight into that animal's nature and knowledge of its habits. The
spectator cannot long examine it without feeling that he has learned much
more of its characteristics and genius than if he had been standing in
front of the same animal's cage at the Zoological Gardens; for here is an
artist who understands how to translate pose into meaning, and action into
utterance, and to select those poses and actions which convey the broadest
and most comprehensive idea of the subject's prevailing traits. He not
only knows what posture or movement the anatomical structure of the animal
renders possible, but he knows precisely in what degree such posture or
movement is modified by the animal's physical needs and instincts. In
other words, he always respects the modesty of nature, and never yields to
the temptation to be dramatic and impressive at the expense of truth. Here
is none of Barye's exaggeration, or of Landseer's sentimental effort to
humanize animal nature. Mr. Kemeys has rightly perceived that animal
nature is not a mere contraction of human nature; but that each animal, so
far as it owns any relation to man at all, represents the unimpeded
development of some particular element of man's nature. Accordingly,
animals must be studied and portrayed solely upon their own basis and
within their own limits; and he who approaches them with this
understanding will find, possibly to his surprise, that the theatre thus
afforded is wide and varied enough for the exercise of his best ingenuity
and capacities. At first, no doubt, the simple animal appears too simple
to be made artistically interesting, apart from this or that conventional
or imaginative addition. The lion must be presented, not as he is, but as
vulgar anticipation expects him to be; not with the savageness and terror
which are native to him, but with the savageness and terror which those
who have trembled and fled at the echo of his roar invest him with,--which
are quite another matter. Zo÷logical gardens and museums have their uses,
but they cannot introduce us to wild animals as they really are; and the
reports of those who have caught terrified or ignorant glimpses of them in
their native regions will mislead us no less in another direction. Nature
reveals her secrets only to those who have faithfully and rigorously
submitted to the initiation; but to them she shows herself marvellous and
inexhaustible. The "simple animal" avouches his ability to transcend any
imaginative conception of him. The stern economy of his structure and
character, the sureness and sufficiency of his every manifestation, the
instinct and capacity which inform all his proceedings,--these are things
which are concealed from a hasty glance by the very perfection of their
state. Once seen and comprehended, however, they work upon the mind of the
observer with an ever increasing power; they lead him into a new, strange,
and fascinating world, and generously recompense him for any effort he may
have made to penetrate thither. Of that strange and fascinating world Mr.
Kemeys is the true and worthy interpreter, and, so far as appears, the
only one. Through difficulty and discouragement of all kinds, he has kept
to the simple truth, and the truth has rewarded him. He has done a service
of incalculable value to his country, not only in vindicating American
art, but in preserving to us, in a permanent and beautiful form, the vivid
and veracious figures of a wild fauna which, in the inevitable progress of
colonization and civilization, is destined within a few years to vanish
altogether. The American bear and bison, the cimmaron and the elk, the
wolf and the 'coon--where will they be a generation hence? Nowhere, save
in the possession of those persons who have to-day the opportunity and the
intelligence to decorate their rooms and parks with Mr. Kemeys's
inimitable bronzes. The opportunity is great--much greater, I should
think, than the intelligence necessary for availing ourselves of it; and
it is a unique opportunity. In other words, it lies within the power of
every cultivated family in the United States to enrich itself with a work
of art which is entirely American; which, as art, fulfils every
requirement; which is of permanent and increasing interest and value from
an ornamental point of view; and which is embodied in the most enduring of
artistic materials.

The studio in which Mr. Kemeys works--a spacious apartment--is, in
appearance, a cross between a barn-loft and a wigwam. Round the walls are
suspended the hides, the heads, and the horns of the animals which the
hunter has shot; and below are groups, single figures, and busts, modelled
by the artist, in plaster, terracotta, or clay. The colossal design of the
"Still Hunt"--an American panther crouching before its spring--was
modelled here, before being cast in bronze and removed to its present site
in Central Park. It is a monument of which New York and America may be
proud; for no such powerful and veracious conception of a wild animal has
ever before found artistic embodiment. The great cat crouches with head
low, extended throat, and ears erect. The shoulders are drawn far back,
the fore paws huddled beneath the jaws. The long, lithe back rises in an
arch in the middle, sinking thence to the haunches, while the angry tail
makes a strong curve along the ground to the right. The whole figure is
tense and compact with restrained and waiting power; the expression is
stealthy, pitiless, and terrible; it at once fascinates and astounds the
beholder. While Mr. Kemeys was modelling this animal, an incident occurred
which he has told me in something like the following words. The artist
does not encourage the intrusion of idle persons while he is at work,
though no one welcomes intelligent inspection and criticism more cordially
than he. On this occasion he was alone in the studio with his Irish
factotum, Tom, and the outer door, owing to the heat of the weather, had
been left ajar. All of a sudden the artist was aware of the presence of a
stranger in the room. "He was a tall, hulking fellow, shabbily dressed,
like a tramp, and looked as if he might make trouble if he had a mind to.
However, he stood quite still in front of the statue, staring at it, and
not saying anything. So I let him alone for a while; I thought it would be
time enough to attend to him when he began to beg or make a row. But after
some time, as he still hadn't stirred, Tom came to the conclusion that a
hint had better be given him to move on; so he took a broom and began
sweeping the floor, and the dust went all over the fellow; but he didn't
pay the least attention. I began to think there would probably be a fight;
but I thought I'd wait a little longer before doing anything. At last I
said to him, 'Will you move aside, please? You're in my way.' He stepped
over a little to the right, but still didn't open his mouth, and kept his
eyes fixed on the panther. Presently I said to Tom, 'Well, Tom, the cheek
of some people passes belief!' Tom replied with more clouds of dust; but
the stranger never made a sign. At last I got tired, so I stepped up to
the fellow and said to him: 'Look here, my friend, when I asked you to
move aside, I meant you should move the other side of the door.' He roused
up then, and gave himself a shake, and took a last look at the panther,
and said he, 'That's all right, boss; I know all about the door; but--what
a spring she's going to make!' Then," added Kemeys, self-reproachfully, "I
could have wept!"

But although this superb figure no longer dominates the studio, there is
no lack of models as valuable and as interesting, though not of heroic
size. Most interesting of all to the general observer are, perhaps, the
two figures of the grizzly bear. These were designed from a grizzly which
Mr. Kemeys fought and killed in the autumn of 1881 in the Rocky Mountains,
and the mounted head of which grins upon the wall overhead, a grisly
trophy indeed. The impression of enormous strength, massive yet elastic,
ponderous yet alert, impregnable for defence as irresistible in attack; a
strength which knows no obstacles, and which never meets its match,--this
impression is as fully conveyed in these figures, which are not over a
foot in height, as if the animal were before us in its natural size. You
see the vast limbs, crooked with power, bound about with huge ropes and
plates of muscle, and clothed in shaggy depths of fur; the vast breadth of
the head, with its thick, low ears, dull, small eyes, and long up-curving
snout; the roll and lunge of the gait, like the motion of a vessel
plunging forward before the wind; the rounded immensity of the trunk, and
the huge bluntness of the posteriors; and all these features are combined
with such masterly unity of conception and plastic vigor, that the
diminutive model insensibly grows mighty beneath your gaze, until you
realize the monster as if he stood stupendous and grim before you. In the
first of the figures the bear has paused in his great stride to paw over
and snuff at the horned head of a mountain sheep, half buried in the soil.
The action of the right arm and shoulder, and the burly slouch of the
arrested stride, are of themselves worth a gallery of pseudo-classic
Venuses and Roman senators. The other bear is lolling back on his
haunches, with all four paws in the air, munching some grapes from a vine
which he has torn from its support. The contrast between the savage
character of the beast and his absurdly peaceful employment gives a touch
of terrific comedy to this design. After studying these figures, one
cannot help thinking what a noble embellishment either of them would be,
put in bronze, of colossal size, in the public grounds of one of our great
Western cities. And inasmuch as the rich citizens of the West not only
know what a grizzly bear is, but are more fearless and independent, and
therefore often more correct in their artistic opinion than the somewhat
sophisticated critics of the East, there is some cause for hoping that
this thing may be brought to pass.

Beside the grizzly stands the mountain sheep, or cimmaron, the most
difficult to capture of all four-footed animals, whose gigantic curved
horns are the best trophy of skill and enterprise that a hunter can bring
home with him. The sculptor has here caught him in one of his most
characteristic attitudes--just alighted from some dizzy leap on the
headlong slope of a rocky mountainside. On such a spot nothing but the
cimmaron could retain its footing; yet there he stands, firm and secure as
the rock itself, his fore feet planted close together, the fore legs rigid
and straight as the shaft of a lance, while the hind legs pose easily in
attendance upon them. "The cimmaron always strikes plumb-centre, and he
never makes a mistake," is Mr. Kemeys's laconic comment; and we can
recognize the truth of the observation in this image. Perfectly at home
and comfortable on its almost impossible perch, the cimmaron curves its
great neck and turns its head upward, gazing aloft toward the height
whence it has descended. "It's the golden eagle he hears," says the
sculptor; "they give him warning of danger." It is a magnificent animal, a
model of tireless vigor in all its parts; a creature made to hurl itself
head-foremost down appalling gulfs of space, and poise itself at the
bottom as jauntily as if gravitation were but a bugbear of timid
imaginations. I find myself unconsciously speaking about these plaster
models as if they were the living animals which they represent; but the
more one studies Mr. Kemeys's works, the more instinct with redundant and
breathing life do they appear.

It would be impossible even to catalogue the contents of this studio, the
greater part of which is as well worth describing as those examples which
have already been touched upon; nor could a more graphic pen than mine
convey an adequate impression of their excellence. But there is here a
figure of the 'coon, which, as it is the only one ever modelled, ought not
to be passed over in silence. In appearance this animal is a curious
medley of the fox, the wolf, and the bear, besides I-know-not-what (as the
lady in "Punch" would say) that belongs to none of those beasts. As may be
imagined, therefore, its right portrayal involves peculiar difficulties,
and Mr. Kemeys's genius is nowhere better shown than in the manner in
which these have been surmounted. Compact, plump, and active in figure,
quick and subtle in its movements, the 'coon crouches in a flattened
position along the limb of a tree, its broad, shallow head and pointed
snout a little lifted, as it gazes alertly outward and downward. It
sustains itself by the clutch of its slender-clawed toes on the branch,
the fore legs being spread apart, while the left hind leg is withdrawn
inward, and enters smoothly into the contour of the furred side; the
bushy, fox-like tail, ringed with dark and light bands, curving to the
left. Thus posed and modelled in high relief on a tile-shaped plaque, Mr.
Kemeys's coon forms a most desirable ornament for some wise man's
sideboard or mantle-piece, where it may one day be pointed out as the only
surviving representative of its species.

The two most elaborate groups here have already attained some measure of
publicity; the "Bison and Wolves" having been exhibited in the Paris Salon
in 1878, and the "Deer and Panther" having been purchased in bronze by Mr.
Winans during the sculptor's sojourn in England. Each group represents one
of those deadly combats between wild beasts which are among the most
terrific and at the same time most natural incidents of animal existence;
and they are of especial interest as showing the artist's power of
concentrated and graphic composition. A complicated story is told in both
these instances with a masterly economy of material and balance of
proportion; so that the spectator's eye takes in the whole subject at a
glance, and yet finds inexhaustible interest in the examination of
details, all of which contribute to the central effect without distracting
the attention. A companion piece to the "Deer and Panther" shows the same
animals as they have fallen, locked together in death after the combat is
over. In the former group, the panther, in springing upon the deer, had
impaled its neck on the deer's right antler, and had then swung round
under the latter's body, burying the claws of its right fore foot in the
ruminant's throat. In order truthfully to represent the second stage of
the encounter, therefore, it was necessary not merely to model a second
group, but to retain the elements and construction of the first group
under totally changed conditions. This is a feat of such peculiar
difficulty that I think few artists in any branch of art would venture to
attempt it; nevertheless, Mr. Kemeys has accomplished it; and the more the
two groups are studied in connection with each other, the more complete
will his success be found to have been. The man who can do this may surely
be admitted a master, whose works are open only to affirmative criticism.
For his works the most trying of all tests is their comparison with one
another; and the result of such comparison is not merely to confirm their
merit, but to illustrate and enhance it.

For my own part, my introduction to Mr. Kemeys's studio was the opening to
me of a new world, where it has been my good fortune to spend many days of
delightful and enlightening study. How far the subject of this writing may
have been already familiar to the readers of it, I have no means of
knowing; but I conceive it to be no less than my duty, as a countryman of
Mr. Kemeys's and a lover of all that is true and original in art, to pay
the tribute of my appreciation to what he has done. There is no danger of
his getting more recognition than he deserves, and he is not one whom
recognition can injure. He reverences his art too highly to magnify his
own exposition of it; and when he reads what I have set down here, he will
smile and shake his head, and mutter that I have divined the perfect idea
in the imperfect embodiment. Unless I greatly err, however, no one but
himself is competent to take that exception. The genuine artist is never
satisfied with his work; he perceives where it falls short of his
conception. But to others it will not be incomplete; for the achievements
of real art are always invested with an atmosphere and aroma--a spiritual
quality perhaps--proceeding from the artist's mind and affecting that of
the beholder. And thus it happens that the story or the poem, the picture
or the sculpture, receives even in its material form that last indefinable
grace, that magic light that never was on sea or land, which no pen or
brush or graving-tool has skill to seize. Matter can never rise to the
height of spirit; but spirit informs it when it has done its best, and
ennobles it with the charm that the artist sought and the world desired.

*** Since the above was written, Mr. Kemeys has removed his studio to
Perth Amboy, N. J.

Julian Hawthorne

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