In This Case: Prairie Chicken
May 9, 2013
Kelly Trop interned at American Art from September 2012 to May 2013. She worked in the Public Programs office and Luce Foundation Center and wrote this post about her experience.
As an intern at the American Art Museum's Luce Foundation Center, one of my first assignments was to write an object label for Edward Kemeys' bronze sculpture, Prairie Chicken. The Kemeys biography at my disposal mentioned he was the first American to make a career out of animal sculpture, but there was no specific information on this particular sculpture. Now Prairie Chicken and I were deep in uncharted territory. Who was going to tell me about this sculpture's creation? How was I going to determine its historical and artistic significance? And were those really a pair of tiny wings sticking out of its neck?
I started by taking a close look at the statue. From the level of detail in the texture and features, I concluded that Prairie Chicken was a realistic portrait of an actual wild animal. But I'd never seen a prairie chicken before, so I researched them by reading online and watching an embarrassing number of prairie chicken videos. It turns out that Kemeys' sculpture is an anatomically accurate life-size model of a small prairie chicken, which is a type of grouse that was once ubiquitous in the Midwest. Kemeys would have been able to see prairie chickens in action at their 'leks', or breeding grounds, and he would have noted their booming mating calls, inflatable orange eyebrows and throat sacs, and the mobile, horn-like pinnae feathers at their necks. As a newly-fledged prairie chicken connoisseur, I can tell you that prairie chickens are at their most appealing when stomping around all puffed up, trying to attract mates or scare off rivals!
Edward Kemeys learned anatomy by hunting and dissecting many wild animals and birds. He often dabbled in amateur taxidermy to capture a particular pose. It is possible that he used one or more of his homemade models as a reference for Prairie Chicken. However, without proper tools and training in taxidermy, he probably couldn't have kept his models' throat sacs full of air throughout the drying process. So while this work may unwittingly reveal Kemeys' weaknesses as a taxidermist, his execution of its pose shows both a dedication to accuracy and an attention to detail.
Kemeys' dual role as an animal portraitist and public sculptor became clearer to me over the course of my research. Kemeys was working on this sculpture in the 1870s, when prairie chickens were more numerous than ever before. But shortly thereafter, the rapid approach of homesteads and farmland into wilderness areas began driving the birds' population down. Today, despite conservation efforts, all species of prairie chickens are now vulnerable or endangered. While Kemeys may not have anticipated this particular fate, he saw his sculptures both as personal records and public memorials.
Near the end of his life, Kemeys moved to Washington, D.C., and tried to convince the government to commission his work for public spaces in the city. Sadly, he did not succeed in that goal. However, since case 16b in the Luce Center has Prairie Chicken and and many more of his sculptures, you can still experience a little bit of the wild west when you visit the American Art Museum!
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