A note from Robert E. Bonner.

If there is a joker in every deck, Astley David Middleton Cooper fills that role in the collection of artists around Buffalo Bill. The paintings Cody commissioned or collected fell generally into two classifications: documentary paintings of his life in Wyoming (e. g., the hunting parties) or narrative representations of events from his past. Cody liked his art to present uncomplicated and recognizable images related more or less directly to his own life. He did not mind seeing a story improved upon in a painting, but the artwork had to fit with his idea of authenticity or his vision of the myths to which he had devoted his life. Yet he purchased four canvases from Cooper for his private collection, none of which were traditional narratives, and one – The White Captive – pure fantasy. Interesting questions immediately arise, about both artist and patron; answers may be more difficult to come by.

In the Studio, 1902
A.D.M. Cooper | Oil on Canvas
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Cooper, born and raised in St. Louis, grew up with the paintings of George Catlin, a family friend. After attending Washington University, he went west in 1876 to paint Indians as Catlin had done, and other Western subjects. He settled in San Francisco in 1879 where he built a reputation as a painter of Indian life and became accomplished as a portrait painter. In 1889 he moved to San Jose. He made money and spent it lavishly. An accomplished violinist, he often sat in with the local symphony, and it was his habit to invite visiting opera and vaudeville troupes to his home for raucous after-hours parties. He painted and partied with equal energy. It has been estimated that he produced over 1000 paintings, the quality of which varied widely. He was capable of producing large, beautifully-painted canvases which sold for tens of thousands of dollars around the turn of the century, but he also got into the habit of dashing off playful nudes to pay his bills in bars from San Jose to San Francisco. [1]

Although Cooper lived his adult life in northern California, his artistic home was east of the Sierras and west of the Missouri. As he matured in the 1890s he began to experiment with trompe-l'oeil technique. Around the turn of the twentieth century he produced a series of canvases in which he used the mounted head of a buffalo as the central element in a still life, usually with Indian accoutrements framing the head and a set of photographs or paintings painted in to fill out the frame. At least four of these survive: two are dated, from 1902 and 1905. A companion set of genre studies featured an Indian warrior in headdress looking at the buffalo head composition hanging on the studio wall, and another looking at a painting of himself on horseback. The buffalo head paintings play with the viewer's eye, as that genre always does, but all of these paintings play also with the viewer's mind and heart. According to Cooper, these buffaloes and Indians were irretrievably lost, and no amount of looking was going to bring them back. [2]

The fact that Bill Cody bought three of these paintings, complicates any attempt to pronounce a simple categorical judgment about his artistic taste and imagination. We know nothing of his relationship with the painter, but there are some grounds for educated guessing. We know that the Wild West played San Jose September 16, 1902. Given Cody's love of a good time and Cooper's reputation for hosting travelling entertainers, it is no far stretch to imagine them meeting at Cooper's home and the host offering a tour of his studio. One of the buffalo head series, Trophies of the Frontier, is dated 1902, and it displayed, in addition to a portrait of an Indian chief, photographs–rendered in paint, of course–of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody. The painting could well have been hanging in Cooper's studio for Cody to see that September evening. Alfred Frankenstein, the historian of American still life painting, who considers Relics of the Past the best of Cooper's work, believes that it had to have been painted expressly for Cody. [3]

Relics of the Past, or The Buffalo Head, 1903
A.D.M. Cooper | Oil on Canvas
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Even if one accepts these guesses about the history of the painting, other questions remain. What did the painting mean to Buffalo Bill or, for that matter, to Cooper himself? For both of them, the painting would surely have touched a chord of memory of a time and place now lost. David Lubin has suggested that trompe-l'oeil painting, with its clear and careful rendering of objects from the past, was popular with the first generation of Americans who experienced the dislocation of social and economic change. Cody and Cooper had lived through the most dramatic changes in the history of the West, and Cooper's buffalo head paintings presented the change so powerfully that the familiar objects there were defamiliarized by the trompe-l'oeil rendering. Lubin writes, "To the extent that one can recapture through mere personal effects a longed-for past. . ., trompe-l'oeil is an especially potent force; if we can trick the eye, maybe we can also trick time and space and reclaim that prior sense of well-being that evocative objects so powerfully represent." Cody would have recognized the dramatic use of this unusual presentation, and possibly seen in Cooper a showman of his own mettle. He would also have seen that Cooper was a more accomplished artist than any other he was then collecting. [4]

Cody's painting actually carries two titles, The Buffalo Head and Relics of the Past. Cooper painted so many buffalo heads that the alternative title would seem to carry more specific meaning. But does that mean that all the elements of the painting were "relics?" Cooper could have intended that meaning, but would Cody have accepted it where he himself was concerned? We may doubt that. It is more likely that he saw himself as the master of the relics, as indeed the placement of his picture on top of the buffalo head would suggest. The arrangement of the objects in the painting emphasizes Cody's commanding position. As Buffalo Bill should do, he demonstrates his mastery of the central icon, the buffalo head. The curves of the buffalo horns carry the eye right to Cody's face, which is perched at the axis of the Indian axe and peace pipe. The other photographs are smaller than Cody's and in subordinate positions: Red Cloud and Gall are off to the side, Wild Bill and Sitting Bull are pushed to the bottom. Frank Grouard, an employee of Cody's who had served as an interpreter in negotiations with the Sioux, unbalances the frame visually but serves to underline Cody's historical mastery. It would not be hard to understand this painting as a representation of Cody's idea of history. He might not have been familiar with trompe-l'oeil painting, but it is, after all, a sub-genre of the historical/realistic painting he favored; one might call it hyper-realist. It would, then, have required no fundamental revision of his ideas on painting to buy it. [5]

Viewing the Curios, 1909
A.D.M. Cooper | Oil on Canvas
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Cooper could well have thought there was more to his work than Cody imagined. Paul J. Staiti has compared trompe-l'oeil painters to confidence men, spiritual followers of P. T. Barnum. Their pictures glorified doubt in an age obsessed with imitation and illusion. They stood outside the artistic establishment and offered entertainment, playing with questions of representation. Unlike their counterparts in the art academies, they appealed to a broad and unsophisticated middle-class audience. Cooper might well have presented his buffalo head paintings as an entertaining way of getting people thinking about the vanishing West, without any commitment to the meaning of a "relic," and without any thought about Cody's historical vision. And Cody could have responded as old Barnum would have done, with a wink and a chuckle, and gone on about his business. Buffalo Bill did know a thing or two about fooling the public, for all his protestations about authenticity. Art historian Angela Miller has further pointed out, that Cody's picture at the top, an image in control of other images, opens the possibility that the whole production is ironic, suggesting that the Old West may only have ever been accessible as images. It is something of a stretch to impose these perceptions on Cody himself, but no stretch at all for Cooper, who may have been postmodern before his time. [6]

The other Cooper paintings in Cody's collection are perhaps less interesting, but they are, again, unlike anything else he collected. The first one, In the Studio, is dated 1902. It shows an Indian wearing a headdress, sitting on a stool staring intently at a painting of an Indian on horseback killing a buffalo. It is not a trompe-loeil work, but it strongly questions the relationship between illusion and reality for this Indian, and therefore for the viewer. A similar work, dated 1909, titled Viewing the Curios, presents an Indian, again wearing the headdress, looking at the buffalo head and Indian implements that had formed the core of Cooper's series of trompe-l'oeil paintings a few years earlier, of which Relics of the Past is the premier example. The title carries a double entendre: the things hanging on the wall might be curios to many who would see them, but not to the man who is viewing them in the picture. These paintings would quite naturally appeal to Buffalo Bill, who was widely known to be sympathetic to the plight of Indians in the twentieth century. Both these Indians could be said to be searching for their bearings in a strange world.

The White Captive, 1902
A.D.M. Cooper | Oil on Canvas
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Another 1902 painting, perhaps acquired on that first visit to San Jose, is The White Captive. A pre-Raphaelite beauty wearing the filmiest of garbs is tied to a tree on the banks of a river, where she is surrounded by an unlikely band of mostly naked cherubs armed with bows and arrows, dancing and disporting themselves in a most unthreatening manner. A warm light suffuses the picture. Without the little people it would be an unremarkable romantic landscape painting; with them, one hardly knows what to say of it. Edan Hughes once saw a painting by Cooper that more or less matches this description advertised for sale for $25. He considered it a "laughable" piece, an example of the work Cooper used to pay his bar bills. Bill Cody might have placed more value on it: legend has it that the painting hung on his bedroom wall. Whatever else it may say of the collector, it shows–and this we already knew–that he had a sense of humor. Indeed, it could well be that at bottom it was a shared sense of humor that found Cooper a place in Cody's collection. [7]

[1] Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1746-1900 (Sacramento, 2002), 3rd. ed. Vol. 1, 240-241; Geoffrey Dunn, "A Painter Comes Home."

[2] Geoffrey Dunn, "A Painter Comes Home;" Hughes, Artists in California. The set of four buffalo head still lifes, with their different titles, may be seen in: Adrienne Ruger Conzelman, ed., After the Hunt; the art collection of William B. Ruger (Mecklenburg, PA, 2002), 54 (Trophies of the Buffalo Hunt, undated); R. L. Wilson and Greg Martin, Buffalo Bill's Wild West; An American Legend (New York, 1998), 235 (unnamed 1905 painting); at First Art Gallery (Trophies of the Frontier, 1902); and Denver Art Museum Institute of Western Art, Redrawing Boundaries; Perspectives on Western American Art (Seattle, 2007), frontispiece (Relics of the Past, undated); this is the painting Cody purchased, which hangs in the Whitney Gallery today.

[3] Alfred Frankenstein, After the Hunt; William Harnett and other American Still Life Painters, 1870-1900 (Berkeley, 1953), 156-157. In the earlier painting, both the photographs of Hickock and Cody were painted in below the buffalo head.

[4] David Lubin, "Permanent Objects in a Changing World; Harnett’s Still Lifes as a Hold on the Past," Amon Carter Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, William M. Harnett (New York, 1992), 49-59, esp. 52. Louis Warren suggests that Cody could have been attracted to a trompe-l'oeil painting like Relics of the Past because it played with the viewer as many of his own dramatic tableaux in the Wild West did; Buffalo Bill's America, 259, n. 14.

[5] Relics of the Past has been characterized by Angela Miller as "a tribute to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West," and the photographs identified as actors in the Wild West show. Of those pictured, only Sitting Bull had appeared with the show, which leads me to argue that the painting is aimed at a larger historical view, not simply the Wild West. She also dated the picture from 1890, for which she cites no evidence. Her essay, "Chasing the Phantom; Cultural Memory in the Image of the West," appears in the Denver Art Museum's Redrawing Boundaries; Perspectives on Western American Art (Denver, 2007), 76-78.

[6] Paul J. Staiti, "Illusionism, Trompe l'Oeil, and the Perils of Viewership," William M. Harnett (New York, 1992), 31-48; Angela Miller, "Chasing the Phantom; Cultural Memory in the Image of the West," 76-78.

[7] Geoffrey Dunn, "A Painter Comes Home." Christine Brindza, acting curator of the Whitney Gallery, is careful to note that no actual evidence can be found on the point of where Cody may have hung The White Captive.