Fast draw

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 8

Fast draw

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 8

As settlers carved out new lives, artists were inspired to depict the majestic landscapes and people of the American West. Larry McMurtry salutes these pioneering painters

he opening of steamboat travel on the upper Missouri River in the 1830s offered artists of all stamps a fabulous opportunity. Before them lay the mythic West: its plains and mountains, its riches, its dangers, its native peoples, its flora and fauna.

Painters rushed there on the first boat and lots of other boats. American chroniclers of the West, such as George Caitlin and Alfred Jacob Miller, and the Swiss painter Karl Bodmer, were virtually tripping over one another. Bodmer had a prince for a patron, the others had to scramble. Together, they left a wonderful body of portraiture, capturing native American chiefs, many of whom died of smallpox before the painters had finished.

From the first, the work of this first generation of painters was expensive, but very soon commerce came to the aid of art, chiefly in the form of illustrated papers. Caitlin and Bodmer produced expensive albums, but Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, their successors, made do with magazines.

Both Remington and Russell were very popular – as, in some measure, they still are. They caught the vivid life of cowboys, trappers, miners, native Americans, and, of course, the landscape. I have recently used a Remington painting as the cover for my novel, The Last Kind Words Saloon. Remington's title was The Passing of the Cowboy. It was painted in 1895, which suggests that Remington's cowboys were smarter in 1895 than the cowboys I worked with in 1950, who didn't seem to realize, or didn't want to admit, that cowboys had more or less passed two generations before them, done in by the severity of the high plains' winters: their capital was largely English and the English took it back.

The art of Remington and Russell speaks for itself. Russell had the habit of illuminating his letters to friends. When I was a young bookseller 50 years ago, these letters were trifles. They are very far from that now.

Larry McMurtry is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose Oscar-winning screenplays include Brokeback Mountain.

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