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The romance and myth of the cowboy as an American icon originated on the cattle drives and trails of the Old West and has been the subject of artists ever since. Drawn from the UW Art Museum Collection, The Cowboy Portrayed offers a variety of depictions by noteworthy early 20th century artists, including Will James, Bill Gollings, Edward Borein, Wolfgang Pogzeba, and Nick Eggenhofer.
From Roy Rogers to Clint Eastwood, the Marlboro Man to Ralph Lauren, the cowboy is a symbol of American culture. Images of this rugged, brave, and often solitary character riding the range have held popular appeal for more than a century. Romantic notions of the cowboy and his lifestyle have been depicted since the open-range cattle industry was established in 1867. Although this boom and bust industry lasted less than 20 years and employed fewer than 50,000 cowboys, it generated our ongoing myth of the western cowboy as presented in film, story, art, and advertising throughout the 20th century.
Rooted in the history of the American West, the open-range cowboy came on the scene in the post-Civil War years along with the settling of the West and industrial advancements. Refrigerated transportation opened a massive Eastern market to the Texas cattle industry. The round-up and trail-drive became the principle occupations of the men hired to move cattle from open-range grazing in Texas to the railheads in Abilene, Dodge City, Ellsworth, and Newton, Kansas. The industry declined in 1886 when severe drought and harsh winter had devastating effects on the herds.
By 1900, the cattle industry was reorganized. Herds were reduced in size, range-land was fenced in, ranchers began to raise winter feed, and windmills and wells were introduced to provide water. Almost over night the cowboy's profession changed from trail-drive and round-ups to post-digging, windmill repair, and mowing and bailing.
The image of the cowboy, however, had been indelibly etched on the imaginations of Americans and Europeans alike and the rambling life of the cowboy became the stuff of legend. "Stove up" cowboys who remained in small western towns contributed to the making of the myth with stories of skill, daring, and adventure. Through Western novels, pulp fiction, newspaper, and especially through Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, international audiences were introduced to the larger-than-life cowboy.
Artists too have done their part in capturing and disseminating the romantic image of cowboys as seen in this selection of prints and drawings from the University of Wyoming Art Museum. Drawings by Nick Eggenhoffer, who was introduced to the cowboy through Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show tour in Europe, were widely published in magazines and books of Western fiction after he moved to the U.S. to become a Western artist. Authors and illustrators Will James and William Colt MacDonald wrote tales of the West accompanied by their own images of rugged and courageous cowboy in action.
While some artists depicted cowboy life as they imagined it, other chose to live it. Both Bill Gollings and Edward Borein were working cowboys who documented their travels and travails. They created images that accurately portrayed the animals they worked with and the landscape they embraced. Alexander Hogue also depicted images from his experience. Known as the 'artist of the dust bowl,' his work reflects a changing world, as does that of Tom Lea. Artists Frank Mechau, H. Van Borkum, Joe De Young, and Wolfgang Pogzeba each provide their own interpretation of cowboys, both past and present. All of these images of cowboys, from the wistful to the raucous, pay homage to the rough and rowdy hero whose life we can imagine as one of unrestrained personal freedom.
The Cowboy Portrayed was created for and circulated through the UW Art Museum's Regional Touring Exhibition Service, part of its ongoing outreach program Art Express. The Regional Touring Exhibition Service is funded in part by the National Advisory Board of the University of Wyoming Art Museum with additional support from FMC Corporation and the Wyoming Community Foundation.
Top: Wolfgang Pogzeba, German-American (b. 1936-) Devil's Gate, Etching, 16/100, 1965, University of Wyoming Art Museum Collection, Gift of Leonard Millman
Bottom: Alexandre Hogue, Desert Glare, Lithograph, 6-3/4 x 11-3/4 inches, 1945, Gift of Friends of the Art Museum, University of Wyoming Art Museum, 77.0045.000