ART PERPETUATING FAME: THE POSTERS OF BUFFALO BILL'S WILD WEST
Knappe, Stephanie Fox
University of Kansas
History of Art
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From 1883 until 1913, Buffalo Bill's Wild West attracted fifty million people in more than one thousand cities in ten countries. William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody's globe-galloping extravaganza would not have attained its status as one of the most widely attended and wildly popular turn-of-the-century spectacles without an extensive and effective promotional system to perpetuate its fame. Using the exhibition's posters as primary objects of inquiry, this dissertation examines the Wild West's most iconic and resonant elements. Each of four case studies is anchored by a key image--a poster that serves as a platform from which to investigate other imagery devoted to the same theme--and incorporates visual and contextual analysis, contemporary public reception, and an exploration of influential iconography originating from both fine art and popular sources as well as their literary counterparts. The first chapter focuses on the man at the center of it all, Buffalo Bill himself, and the meanings of the various roles he played within the Wild West's arena and in its advertising. The second chapter analyzes the complicated and shifting status of Indians near the close of the nineteenth century. The cowboy, who, like the Indian, experienced a change in reputation vividly chronicled by the Wild West and its promotional imagery, is the subject of the third chapter. The Congress of Rough Riders of the World, a reflection of increasing American imperialism, cultural hegemony and exceptionalism during an era when the word "frontier" no longer strictly referred to the American West, is the topic of the final chapter. The posters of Buffalo Bill's Wild West advertised more than a traveling exhibition that captivated millions for three decades. A century after the exhibition met its fate on the auction block, the posters designed to promote it still perpetuate its fame. Simultaneously, images of Buffalo Bill, Indians, cowboys, and multinational Rough Riders continue to illuminate many defining currents of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. When considered in their cultural context, the posters of Buffalo Bill's Wild West both influenced and underscored complex sociopolitical ideologies, perspectives, and values that challenged and shaped America.
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