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Cowboys, real and imagined, in San Jose's Museum of Art ... September 7 through November 4.

The heyday of the early cowboy was surprisingly brief: the cattle industry where the first true cowboys worked lasted only 30 years (roughly to 1865 to 1895). After barbed wire and order came to the open range, the gut-busting, dust-raising drives that took 6 million cattle along trails like the Chisolm faded into history. But what has survived is the cowboy myth, the romantic notion of rugged individuals roaming free in the open West.

The actual history, origins of the myth, and modern interpretations of the cowboy are explored in "The American Cowboy," a new exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art. Running September 7 through November 4 and assembled from the Library of Congress, the show looks at this folk hero in both serious and whimsical lights, in 370 artifacts, manuscripts, maps, posters, paintings, and sculptures.

You'll see some wonderful early photographs, a few showing stern-faced men wearing chaps, ill-fitting white cotton shirts, and hats with dented crowns. Nearby are lithographs from the 1890s showing glamorized cowboys from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Playbills from the shows and copies of dime novels (with titles such as Lasso Jack and Rivals of the Range) demonstrte how writers elevated the cowboy to idol.

A journalist in 1887 idealized him as "a perfect hero, characterized by indifference to peril, perfect fealty to a friend, extreme amiability, coupled with a readiness to shoot." Dramatic woodcuts and cover illustrations foreshadowed scenes from later silent films.

Serious artists are also represented. You'll see striking watercolors, oils, and sculptures by the West's premier artists, Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington--although you may notice howe even they tended to idealize the cowboy.

Romanticism reached amusing proportions in Hollywood, and the exhibition treats it with fond humor in stills from the era of singing cowboys: Gene Autry's 1946 "Melody Ranch" radio show, Roy Rogers' Republic Studios action films, early posters of a fresh-faced John Wayne, as well as children's toys

and lunch boxes depicting the 1950s Hopalong Cassidy TV show.

An impressive catalog ($20 at the gift shop) accompanies the exhibit, and a program of lectures and demonstrations will augment it. For program details, not set at press time, call (408) 294-2797.

The San Jose Museum of Art is at 110 S. Market Street. Hours are 11 to 5 Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, 11 to 6 Thursdays, and noon to 4 weekends; admission is free.
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Date:Sep 1, 1984
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