Pulp Redemption

From dime novels to museums, Western pulp art and illustration has reached its zenith.

A.R. Mitchell drifted into the office of Cowboy Stories magazine in the late 1920s with a painting to show editor Harold Hersey. “Mr. Hersey, I’ve tried to paint the real cowboy,” Hersey recalled the artist saying, “not the movie variety.”

The painting appeared on the magazine’s January 1927 cover, launching Mitchell’s career and inspiring Hersey to write of Mitchell in the issue’s “Editor’s Notebook”: “He refuses to compromise for the sake of popularity, but like all sincere and great painters, he will get the popularity he does not seek….”

 

The untitled 1961 painting by Cowboy Artists of America cofounder John Hampton exemplifies the illustrative and artistic style of working-cowboy artist Charles M. Russell.
Courtesy The Phippen Museum

 

When it came time to choose art for True West’s first cover in the summer of 1953, founding editor Joe Small chose a classic Western illustration by fellow Texan, artist and illustrator Randy Steffen.
True West Archives

 

Illustrators certainly influenced pulp art, says Allyson Sheumaker, executive director of the A.R. Mitchell Museum in Trinidad, Colorado, which celebrates its 40th anniversary with a fundraising ball October 2. [See the Old West Saviors column on the A.R. Mitchell Museum on page 14.]

“I think Western illustration was the foundation for Western pulp art,” Sheumaker says. “The art on the cover of pulp magazines is what drew the reader in. It is the reason the publication was purchased.”

But did great illustrators become great artists because of their illustrative careers or were they great artists to begin with?

 

Charles M. Russell’s experiences as a working cowboy in Montana helped him develop his style and career as a Western illustrator. He never lost his sense of humor, as displayed in his master works, such as in Utica 1907 (A Quiet Day in Utica).
Courtesy Sid Richardson Museum

 

Take Maynard Dixon, an iconic Southwestern artist and member of the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. Dixon, says Mark Sublette, owner of Tucson’s Medicine Man Art Gallery, “said he learned more about being a fine artist by working for the large San Francisco advertising firm Foster Kleiser than during any other training. His illustrative legacy continues its roots through today’s successful crop of contemporary Western artists who channel his sense of color, strong lines and powerful composition in their fine art paintings of the Modern West.”

Early illustrators weren’t all men. Mary Hallock Foote was an author and illustrator for many publications and became one of the renowned women illustrators of the 1870s and 1880s. Her “realistic depictions of landscapes in Idaho, Colorado and California, helped shape the American view of the Far West as a prospective home for women and men,” historian Chris Enss says.

 

Like his contemporary A.R. Mitchell, Maynard Dixon’s career as an artist began as an illustrator for books and magazines, including the November 1904 issue of Sunset.
Courtesy Medicine Man Gallery

 

Frederic Remington’s first illustration was done as a Yale student for the Yale Courant. By the 1880s, he was established as an illustrator. “But,” says Laura Desmond, curator at the Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg, New York, “he learned quickly that in the minds of the critics, there was a divide between illustration work and fine art, and though he’d received some early critical accolades, and exhibited his work at least annually throughout his career, his prodigious production of illustration work had to some extent pigeon-holed him as a mere illustrator in the eyes of the critics, something that he worked hard to overcome.”

 

Trinidad, Colorado, artist Arthur Roy Mitchell pursued a career as an illustrator and artist and found success painting cover art for Western pulp magazines, including his famous oil Shooters that graced the March 27, 1937 issue of Street & Smith’s Wild West Weekly. Courtesy A.R. Mitchell Museum

 

Mary Hallock Foote was one of the few women working as a professional illustrator and author of Western stories and novels in the late 19th century. In the October 1889 issue of Collier’s, Foote’s illustration A Pretty Girl in the West (above) accompanied her essay “Pretty Girls in the West,” about eastern girls attracting suitors when on holiday in the West.
Courtesy Library of Congress

 

Like his peer Charlie Russell, Frederic Remington broke into the Western art field through hard work and perseverance as an illustrator and observer of day-to-day life in the frontier West, as reflected in A Buck Jumper.
Courtesy Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art

 

Prussian-born William Henry Dethlef (W.H.D.) Koerner was raised in Clinton, Iowa, before he began his career as a newspaper staff artist. In the early 20th century he developed his style as a Western illustrator and artist, drawing comparisons to Remington and Russell, which can be seen in his 1930 oil on canvas, The Mercy Stroke.
Courtesy The Brinton Museum

 

A student of master illustrator and mentor Howard Pyle, Philip R. Goodwin was a prolific artist. When Things are Quiet is a great example of his style and ability to illustrate the lives of hunters, cowboys and adventurers in the West.
Courtesy National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

 

Illustrator Frank Schoonover, also a student of Howard Pyle, was in high demand for his illustrative skills for Western stories and novels, such as Hopalong Takes Command, from “The Fight at Buckskin,” by Clarence Edward Mulford, in the December 1905 issue of Outing Magazine.
Courtesy Delaware Art Museum

 

As reflected in The Enemies’ Horses, ca. 1912-1920, Harvey Dunton, like many of his contemporaries in Western illustration, pursued his craft as a fine art artist when he was not fulfilling his contractual illustration obligations.
Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

Iowa-born Frank Tenney Johnson was a prolific and sought after early 20th century Western illustrator and a friend and contemporary of Charles M. Russell. Johnson’s 1934 Chico is a classic example of his artwork which has endeared him to generations of Western collectors.
Courtesy Woolaroc Museum

 

German-born, Hudson School of Art artist Albert Bierstadt became world-renowned for his extraordinarily large and romanticized oils of the American West in the mid- to late-19th century, but his popularity was spread by numerous engravings of his work, including Silver Lake, California, circa 1867.
Courtesy Library of Congress

 

That hadn’t changed during the Golden Era of the American Illustrator (1900-1930), which produced a number of successful artists, including W. Herbert Dunton, Frank Schoonover, Philip R. Goodwin and W.H.D. Koerner.

“Dunton gave up his career as an illustrator when he moved to Taos in 1915,” says Michael R. Grauer, McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture and Curator of Cowboy Collections and Western Art at Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. “Goodwin’s work appeared everywhere, but nobody knew his name; he’s the most famous artist nobody ever heard of. Koerner and Schoonover suffered from the illustrators’ curse—a bunch of nonsense cooked up by art historians who basically said illustrators were a bunch of hired hacks.”

Renea A. Dauntes, archivist at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas, points to N.C. Wyeth. “He is especially interesting because he was noted for being very aware of the limitations of painting versus illustration,” Dauntes says. “The printing processes, at the time, were limiting to an artist’s imagination. Frequently, a modest color palette restricted the way ideas could be presented.”

 

Western artist and illustrator Howard Dow “H.D.” Bugbee was raised east of Amarillo, Texas, and his art, like that of his role model Charles M. Russell, celebrated the life of working cowboys and ranching that he witnessed growing up, as seen in his 1917 Untitled [Stampede].
Courtesy Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum
In the early 20th century, few artists were as well-known in the world of book and magazine illustration as N.C. Wyeth. His 1907 oil on canvas, Bucking, was first published in the March 1906 issue of Scribner’s Magazine.
Courtesy Buffalo Bill Center of the West

 

Similar to his contemporary Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran became famous for his masterworks, including Grand Canyon, but he made a living as an illustrator on Western surveys.
Courtesy Library of Congress

 

Years after the Golden Era, Frank C. McCarthy made a name for himself by having his paintings appear on the covers of myriad Louis L’Amour novels. “An illustrator is a fine artist who has to design paintings of a given subject matter around the typesetting of a page or double page, cover or ad layout for publication,” McCarthy told Western novelist Elmer Kelton for Kelton’s The Art of Frank C. McCarthy (1992). “Most painters from time immemorial have made their livings doing commissions of given subject matter.”

On that list you’ll find Albert Bierstadt, Frank Tenney Johnson and Thomas Moran.

Books today, of course, still need cover art.

“There are plenty of book-cover artists today, but most of their work graces the covers of ‘bodice-busters’ or Western fantasy books,” Grauer says. “While there were plenty of clichés in the golden age, today they just seem to be cookie cutter or wash, rinse, repeat.”

But some publishers are making headway. At Blackstone Publishing, lead designer Kathryn English says, “Capturing a specific mood communicates what the book is about.” 

 

Modern artist Andy Warhol’s 1986 Cowboys and Indians: Geronimo, is one of his masterpieces that reinterpreted and forever changed the world’s idea of Western art and illustration.
Courtesy the Booth Western Art Museum, 2019, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

Award-winning contemporary Western artist Ed Mell is well-known for his modern reinterpretation of Western art, especially his landscapes inspired by the Colorado Plateau and Sonoran Desert’s dramatic geography. Similar to works by Andy Warhol and Billy Schenck, Mell’s Square Shooter is a classic reinterpretation of early pulp illustrators such as A.R. Mitchell.
Courtesy Ed Mell

 

The 1996 serigraph Gone with the Gunsmoke by modern Western artist and illustrator Billy Schenck pops off the page with the vibrant palette of colors that defines his art. Courtesy Tucson Museum of Art, Gift of the artist in honor of Rick Small, Jr., 38/78, 2011.6.1, Tucson, Arizona

 

In post-World War II Western book publishing, Frank McCarthy’s artwork, such as Crossing the Divide, became highly sought after for cover art for Western novels. Courtesy Tim Peterson Family Collection, Scottsdale’s Museum of the West

 

Harold von Schmidt was a peer of Norman Rockwell, Maynard Dixon and Frank Tenney Johnson. His 1949 Under the Pine Tree is an example of the illustration style that made him well-known in the illustrated magazine world and popular with film directors, including John Ford.
True West Archives

 

And these days, high-profile names are common in the illustrative world. Dauntes points to Ed Mell and Billy Schenck.

Opinions of illustrators, of course, have changed. Just ask Schenck, a protégé of Andy Warhol, a fashion illustrator who didn’t touch Westerns until his “Elvis” paintings of 1962 and several serigraphs in 1986. Schenck and Mell arrived in New York around the same time.

“When I came up, New York was the happening contemporary scene, and I perceived myself as a contemporary artist,” Schenck says. “I was such a snob, being a New York City artist. I had utter disdain for illustrators. I thought these were just second- and third-tier artists who are wannabe artists.

“As the decades rolled along, I thought, ‘Wow, these illustrators did some pretty fantastic work and after they became fine artists, they did even greater work.’ It was kind of a coming-to-Jesus meeting with illustrators. And now, for years I’ve been using movie stills as a basis for a lot of my art. So, yeah, those illustrators? They’re pretty good.”

Johnny D. Boggs objected to one of his book covers, but his literary agent told him, “Shut up. It’ll sell.” Royalty statements proved his agent correct.

 

In the early decades of the 20th century, artist-illustrator William Robinson Leigh was a well-known, New York-based artist and illustrator who began touring the American West in 1906. His 1914 oil, The Roping, is an outstanding example of his early Western work.
True West Archives

 

The Taos Art Museum is housed in Russian-born artist Nicolai Fechin’s former home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Fechin came to Taos, New Mexico, for his health in 1927, and he became greatly enamored with painting his adopted home and its native people, as seen in his 1928 oil on canvas Taos Pueblo.
Courtesy The Peterson Family Collection, Taos Art Museum

 

In the mid-20th century, few Western illustrators had as broad of an appeal and popularity as cowboy-illustrator and author Will James. His artwork and illustrations, like this 1935 untitled watercolor, reflected his working knowledge of cowboying and horses.
Courtesy Northern Nevada Museum

 

On May 28, 2021, Scottsdale’s Museum of the West opened “Dr. Rennard Strickland’s Profound Legacy: The Golden West on the Silver Screen,” a showcase of the late historian’s remarkable collection of Western and Indian movie posters and lobby cards.
Images Courtesy SMoW

 

THE GOLDEN WEST

Rennard Strickland’s cinema collection at Scottsdale’s Museum of the West

Rennard Strickland, who died January 5 at age 80, is lauded as a champion of American Indian rights and American Indian law.

A Muskogee, Oklahoma, native of Osage and Cherokee heritage, Strickland served as dean of several law schools and introduced Indian law into the University of Oklahoma Law Center’s curriculum.

But Strickland was also an art philanthropist and collector of movie ephemera. Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West honors that legacy with an exhibit titled “Dr. Rennard Strickland’s Profound Legacy: The Golden West on the Silver Screen,” which debuted May 28.

The exhibit, a celebration of Strickland’s love for Western films and art, includes rare Western and Indian movie posters and lobby cards that date from the 1890s to the mid-1980s.

“We hope what people will get out of this is an appreciation for Dr. Strickland and what a remarkable philanthropist he was,” says Tricia Loscher, assistant museum director and chief curator. “He really brings a perspective that is unique because he interprets these posters as a critical reading and gives insight—not only to the Western films, directors and actors—but also an analysis of where we were in history, based on the films.”

Quotes from Strickland’s colleagues are posted throughout the exhibit.

In 2016, Western Spirit and the Arizona State University Foundation were gifted more than 5,000 posters and lobby cards, and “The Rennard Strickland Collection of Western Film History” ran at Western Spirit June 20, 2017, through September 23, 2018. 

Estimated value of the entire collection: $6 million.

 —JDB

 

Following in the tradition of master Western artists who painted historical scenes of the frontier West, Arizona-based artist Sherry Blanchard Stuart has established herself as one of the finest in her generation, as reflected in her painting of mountain men in Rendezvous Tonight.
Courtesy Sherry Blanchard Stuart

 

Renowned Western artist Andy Thomas is recognized for undergoing meticulous research of the Old West and American frontier before he begins a painting. His work follows in the tradition of the classic artists who defined Western art and illustration in the 19th and 20th centuries, as seen in his oil on canvas, The Captivity of Fanny Kelly.
Courtesy Andy Thomas

 

Telluride, Colorado, and Taos, New Mexico-based artist Kathryn Tatum is inspired by the wondrous geography and seasons of the mountainous region she calls home. Her contemporary oil on canvas, Invigorate, is painted in the tradition of modern masters who have redefined the genre, such as Ed Mell.
Courtesy Kathryn Tatum

 

George Phippen, a cofounder of the Cowboy Artists of America, was a self-taught artist who painted what he knew. The Crack of Dawn on a Cow Ranch illustrates a cowhand on roundup and can be seen at the Phippen Museum in Prescott, Arizona.
Courtesy The Phippen Museum

 

In Ogdensburg, New York, The Frederic Remington Art Museum houses and curates one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of works by the master Western artist. Considered his final piece, the 1908 oil on canvas Untitled (The Cigarette) reflects the New York artist’s impressionistic style that he was developing before his life ended abruptly at the age of 48 in 1909.
Courtesy Frederic Remington Art Museum

 

The sculpture Wyatt Earp by award-winning sculptor Michael Roche captures in three dimensions the style of classic Western artists, illustrators and sculptors.
Courtesy Michael Roche

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