Friday, April 06, 2012

billy the kid: recapturing the real west

Catch it before it closes — The exhibition Recapturing the Real West is currently on display at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida until April 29. Featuring items from the collections of William I. Koch (who also helped curate the show), the Four Arts is jam-packed with painting, sculpture, photography, artifacts, and even a room that has been turned into a Western saloon.

There are so many wonderful items to see that it is almost overwhelming. A Wells Fargo mail coach dominates one gallery, while another room has a reproduction general store and lots and lots (and lots) of guns and weapons. There is a small room off the saloon that features items from Old West brothels. Photos of and objects belonging to Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Jesse James, George Amstrong Custer, Wild Bill Hickock — the list goes on and on. Costumes from Hollywood westerns worn by Jane Russell, Maureen O'Hara, and Ava Gardner are also on display. Wandering through the galleries one can really feel the depth of enthusiasm Koch feels for the period. It's like being in the mind of a collector.

Billy the Kid (1860 – 1881)

But the item that made the biggest impact on me and my daughter was a small tintype of Billy the Kid. Koch spent $2.3 million last year in auction for this object, the only authenticated photograph of the famous outlaw. The Four Arts has a small catalogue for the show which all viewers get as they exit the show (Koch is producing a more detailed catalogue which should be available later in 2012), that includes many interesting details about the photo.
  • The tintype is a reversed image, so we are essentially seeing Billy's mirror image. For years people thought this meant that Billy was left-handed (Paul Newman even portrayed him sympathetically in Arthur Penn's The Left-handed Gun. The other clue is that Winchester rifles (Billy's is an 1873 lever action rifle) loads on the right side.
  • Tintypes usually produce four images, but so far this seems to be the only one that survived, a gift from the Kid to his friend Dan Dedrick, who passed it on to his heirs, from whom Koch bought it. It's possible that another copy was on the Kid when he died, and used by Pat Garrett to illustrate his book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid.
  • The hat Billy wears is an Army slouch hat (the photo was taken at Fort Sumner, New Mexico). But the Kid favored a sombrero.
From the Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner:
“That a young man known as Billy the Kid ever existed is an indisputable fact. His name is about all that anyone can ever agree upon when it comes to the telling of his story. It was not a name he sought for himself but one that was ascribed to him late in the final year of his brief twenty-one-year life by newspaper reporters and dime novelists. It also was the name that stuck. What were, in fact, his true given name and surname remain a mystery, like so much else about Billy.

What is astonishing for any potential biographer is to realize that there is no agreement about Billy's parentage ancestry, his place of birth, and even the date and place of his death. No one can say with certainty when he came into this world, for his actual birth date remains open to debate. Although most historians concur that he was shot and killed by Pat Garrett in the New Mexico Territory on July 14th 1881, there have always been those who cannot agree on the facts of his demise.” — From the book: Billy The Kid: The Endless Ride, by Michael Wallis
It's wonderful how an object, a photograph, can open up the past, bring it back to life. I want to learn more about the man, who died at the age of 21 in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. There were some great statues by Remington and paintings by Thomas Hart Benton and many others in the show, but what really captured my imagination was a tiny tintype. I need to get back and take one last look at (some photos of) Billy the Kid and some of his friends and enemies.

Note: Originally scheduled to run through April 15, the exhibition has been extended through April 29.
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