Edward Kemeys was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1843 and served as a captain in the Union Army during the Civil War. He had always been enamored of animals but had never been moved to make an image of one until, serving as an engineer on a party charged with laying out New York’s Central Park, he saw a sculptor modeling a wolf’s head at the zoo and decided to try his own hand.
Kemeys, a self-trained artist, was fascinated by animal behavior exhibited in the wild. The turmoil and violence of Buffalo and Wolves [SAAM,1984.141.2], in which a buffalo writhes in an effort to shake off four voracious wolves, shows his mastery of animal anatomy and engages the viewer in the deadly struggle of powerful opponents.
Although he moved to France and exhibited this work at the Paris Salon of 1878, Kemeys chose to return to the United States. The docile animals of Paris’s Parc Zoologique just didn’t inspire him. His work was fueled by the raw energy of the American West, where nature was untamed. Kemeys admitted to being terribly homesick while in Europe, “When I found myself on shipboard and pointed for America, I could have turned hand-springs all over the deck.”
Amy Pastan The Lure of the West: Treasures of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (New York and Washington, D.C.: Watson-Guptill Publications, in cooperation with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2000)
Edward Kemeys was the first American artist to devote his career to sculpting animals. He did not receive any formal art training and worked in the iron business until the beginning of the Civil War. He worked in New York for the civil engineering corps, felling trees in Central Park, and frequently visited the zoo in the park. On one occasion, he saw a sculptor modeling a wolf from wax. This encounter proved to be the turning point in his career because it inspired him to create his first sculpture, of a pair of wolves fighting over a carcass. He was an avid hunter and made numerous trips to the western plains and mountains throughout his career, creating images of panthers, buffalo, bears, and deer.