The Wall Street Journal
Sotheby’s or Christie’s would have been thrilled to sell the dramatic, atmospheric painting Mists in the Yellowstone, by the American Thomas Moran (1837-1926), considered the premier artist of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, but nobody asked them. When the painting sold last Saturday for $4.9 million–almost double the previous auction record for the artist, and way above its $2 million-$3 million estimate–it was at the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction in the grand ballroom of the Silver Legacy Resort and Casino, one floor below a sea of beeping, flashing slot machines. Las Vegas’s Bellagio, it seems, is not Nevada’s only art attraction: Reno is home to the nation’s biggest and most successful auction of Western art. Every July, hundreds of well-heeled collectors from Maine to Hawaii flock here and spend millions of dollars on important works by Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, and other celebrated painters of the Old West.
Any one of them will be glad to tell you why these works are here instead of at some fancy-pants auction house in Manhattan. “Collectors of Western art don’t think it gets the respect it deserves back East,” says Dr. Larry Peterson, a Lake Oswego, Ore., dermatologist, and author of books on the work of Russell. “And they just feel more comfortable dealing with Westerners.”
This group feels right at home with Bob Drummond of Hayden, Idaho, Stuart Johnson of Kalispell, Mont., and Peter Stremmel of Reno–the trio of art dealers who founded the sale in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 1984. Described by colleagues and clients alike as “a bunch of straight shooters,” they run a tight ship. Estimates and fees are low, and the quality of art is high.
Mr. Drummond specializes in “deceased artists,” the market’s term for the classic Cowboy and Indian scenes, Taos School paintings, and panoramic landscapes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mr. Johnson represents blue-chip contemporary painters like Howard Terpning whose nostalgic, evocative paintings of 19th-century Native American life can bring $300,000–a fair chunk of change for an artist whose work would be dismissed as “calendar art” by devotees of the Whitney Biennial. Mr. Stremmel is the auctioneer whose easy banter sends them all home. Under the threesome’s stewardship the sale grew steadily in size and importance, outgrowing its Idaho home in 1999, and relocating to the less picturesque, but better-equipped precincts of Reno. “The year 42 private jets tried to fly in, and [the airport] had to divert some to Spokane because there wasn’t room, it was time to go,” says Mr. Drummond.
This year, most of the Lears and Hawkers touched down on Friday. Coeur d’Alene is both a serious buying venue and a two-day party designed to attract out-of-towners and keep them happy until the auction starts on Saturday afternoon. The Friday-night cocktail and buffet, Saturday-morning lecture on painting conservation, and the lunch before the sale were all well attended. Men in cowboy hats and Hawaiian shirts swigged deeply from beer bottles (the bar opens on Friday and stays open until the end of the sale) as they circled the displays of 283 paintings, prints and sculptures. The women accompanying them wore colorful slacks and chunky turquoise jewelry. One well-endowed matron sported a skimpy T-shirt emblazoned with the suggestion “Buy Me Something.”
It’s not a group that screams “money,” but looks can be deceiving. “You have no idea how much wealth is in this room,” sighed one dealer, noting that, for many in the crowd, the second or third house is a ranch in Montana waiting to be filled with paintings that reflect the history and the landscape of the West.
They had come to the right place, as this year’s catalogue bulged with goodies. The Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, was selling nine works from its bottomless Western collection, including Mists of the Yellowstone. In addition, there were colorful scenes of Indian life painted in Taos, N.M., in the early 20th century; watercolors by Frederic Remington; and animal studies by the great wildlife painter Carl Rungius. Besides the museum, many of the lots had come from private collections and estates.
By sale time on Saturday, 700 eager bidders were shifting impatiently in their seats as the mayor of Reno welcomed them “to the biggest little city in the world.” The bids began to pop as soon as the auctioneer opened his mouth, unleashing a flurry of activity more familiar to sports fans than art collectors. Mr. Stremmel’s patter was nearly drowned out by Coeur d’Alene employees familiarly known as “Yippers”–a corps of young, male, spotter-cheerleaders positioned around the salesroom who signaled every bid by standing near its source and uttering a series of loud, staccato cries of “Yip! Yip! Yip!” while jumping high in the air and triumphantly pumping their fists. If a bidder hesitated, the yipper moved in closer and made frantic beckoning gestures and held the bidder’s gaze until he anted up.
The yippers went crazy when Mr. Stremmel got to the Amon Carter’s Squaw Winter, a rare painting of a Montana Indian settlement by Taos artist Joseph H. Sharp. Estimated at $250,000-$450,000, it finally sold to a client of Denver dealer Steve Good for a record $1.06 million. They revved up again when Navajo Lookout/Surveying the Plains by Russell, owned by the same family since 1921, came on the block at $400,000-$600,000. Sotheby’s Client Services team (which comes to Coeur d’Alene every year to bid on Western works its customers can’t get in its own sales) tried to buy this one, but it sold to Gerald Peters, a dealer with galleries in New York and Santa Fe, N.M., for $616,000. A collector from Palm Desert, Calif., with a ranch in Montana, caused an extended spasm of yipping when he paid $95,000 for Meadow With Cattle a mountain landscape by Victor Higgins expected to sell for only $20,000-$30,000. In a catalogue entry, Mr. Terpning reminded collectors that the Indians depicted in his painting The Guardian, “were not always at battle, but raised children, made love, cooked meals, hunted buffalo.” Goosed by the yippers, bidders pushed the price to $246,400, near the top of its estimate.
Five long, loud hours later, it was all over, with 99.3% of the works having sold, many far above estimate. And the sale had racked up a total of $18 million–a new record. Outside the salesroom, the bar was finally closed, but people still lingered, high on adrenalin and Western camaraderie. The old hands wanted to know what the Eastern reporter thought of the Coeur d’Alene. It was sure a lot of fun now, wasn’t it? It sure was. Natty in a well-tailored blue blazer, founder Stuart Johnson accepted my congratulations and tipped an imaginary hat. “Shucks, ma’am,” He said, without a trace of a Western accent. “Yippee-yi-ki-yay.”
Article, “Lovers of Western Art Stampede to Reno” by Ann E. Berman, July 2004.
Thanks largely to the urging of his humorist friend Will Rogers, Amon Carter (1879-1955), a Fort Worth newspaper publisher and industrialist, began collecting American art during the 1930s. Today the Amon Carter Museum of American Art houses an exceptional collection of painting, sculpture, graphics, photography and works on paper from about 1820 to 1950, including representative works by Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt through Childe Hassam, Charles Sheeler and Louise Nevelson. It is particularly rich in works by artists who depicted the American West, especially Frederic Remington and his greatest rival, Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926).
The museum is now exhibiting “Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell,” the first comprehensive show to focus on this artist’s important place in 19th-century America’s watercolor tradition. One hundred Russell works selected from the museum’s own trove and from other public and private collections document his singular career. These range from sketches and notebook leaves showing Russell’s early, crude efforts to record his rugged cowboy life during the 1880s, through his mastery of the medium during the 1890s and 1900s, to his very last watercolor, “When Cows Were Wild,” painted shortly before his death.
Although renowned as “The Cowboy Artist,” he was not to that manner born. A St. Louis native, Russell grew up in urban prosperity. But he yearned to experience the prairies and eventually hired on for 11 years as a genuine cowboy. In and out of the saddle, Russell sketched in his ubiquitous pocket notebooks. A selection of early sketches from 1882-83 reveals his keen eye roving from cowboys herding to lyrical studies of deer at a waterfall. Their technical naiveté makes that much more impressive the increasing assurance of his draftsmanship during the early 1890s, because he was entirely self-taught.
This is not just a show of Russell’s watercolors but also about Russell’s often innovative watercolor technique. Russell’s affinity for his preferred medium coincided with a general surge in watercolor activity following the Civil War, when commercially manufactured paints and papers became increasingly available for mail-order shipment. Earlier, John James Audubon had made his meticulous ornithological studies in watercolor, and artists like Thomas Sully, Asher Durand and George Caleb Bingham painted and sketched in watercolor. Nevertheless, the medium had been a lesser ancillary to oil painting until Winslow Homer emerged about 1875 as the first important American to embrace both transparent and opaque watercolor for their own unique properties, rather than merely to add color to line drawing.
Although Russell’s work doesn’t exhibit Homer’s bright Impressionist palette or his sometimes innovative sense of compositional space, he often uses looser brushwork for backgrounds and foregrounds of his compositions, while painting his figures tightly—a manner allied to the French juste milieu style that influenced Paris-trained contemporaries like Sargent and Daniel Ridgway Knight. Russell “constantly experimented with technical ideas in order to record accurately the minute details of cowboy and especially Indian culture and dress,” says the exhibition’s curator, Rick Stewart, author of the splendid catalog. For example, in “The Story Teller” (1893-95) Russell depicted the characteristic tacks on a Blackfeet Indian pipe by “kissing” the paper with the mouth of the open tube of raw-sienna paint, according to the museum’s paper conservator, Jodie Utter, then applying highlights with thick blobs of impasto (i.e., undiluted) white, pin-pricking each blob to achieve the 3-D effect of actual brass tacks. In “Hiawatha’s Wooing” (1903), inspired by Canto 10 of Longfellow’s poem, Russell uses layered transparent washes and strokes of semiopaque wash to build up the texture and depth of the forest behind the figures.
“Russell was also a superb storyteller who conveyed his thoroughly unique understanding of every professional trick of the cowboy trade,” says Mr. Stewart, while pointing out a particularly subtle backhanded rope maneuver in “When Cows Were Wild.” By the late 1890s, his quick eye and firsthand experience of galloping steeds and bucking broncos enabled him to depict the most complex, fleeting equestrian positions. Meanwhile, the care with which Russell details the sinewy arms and hand of the Indian bowman in “Wild Man’s Meat” (1899) reveals his proficient observation of human anatomy as well, often gained by modeling poses himself and using a mirror.
Recording a Wild West that had virtually disappeared after the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, Russell reminisced about the uneasy relationship between the cowboys and their environment in “Rainy Morning” (1904) and the uneasy truce between Indians and encroaching white men in “A Doubtful Handshake” (1910). He even documented uneasy relationships among animals in the fierce horse fight of “The Challenge No. 2” (1898) and in the faceoff between a marauding wolf and a large male buffalo in “Guardian of the Herd” (1899).
Considerable violence marks such works as “Buffalo Hunt [No. 15]” (1896), showing an Indian brave and his agonized horse crushed by their enraged quarry. In contrast, humor and affection characterize the two versions of “Beauty Parlor” (1897 and 1907) showing a squaw arranging her brave’s hair as he examines the process in a hand mirror. In a way, these two pictures offer Indian-themed ripostes to Cassatt’s intimate domestic scenes.
Through books, periodicals and occasional travel, Russell kept abreast of developments in the art world, adding these to his vast knowledge of prairie anthropology. Hence in “Sun Worship in Montana” (1907), the precisely rendered details of the tepee, the decorated cradle and the mother’s garments convey Russell’s profound sympathy for the religion and culture of the Blackfeet Indians. At the same time, the mother’s swaybacked ceremonial posture recalls—to these eyes—Sargent’s striking portrait of the actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, while suggesting Russell’s awareness of contemporary urban fashions.
Russell’s book illustrations, especially for his popular anthologies of traditional Indian tales, bespeak his gift for mystical imagery and caricature. Among these, the mist-shrouded atmosphere of “Ho!—When the Ghost-People Saw the Unlucky-One They Rushed at Him With Many Lances” (1915) and the pen-and-ink overlay of “Yes—The Mice People Always Make Their Nest in the Heads of the Dead Buffalo-People, Ever Since the Night” (c. 1915) approach the linear texture and even grotesquery of Arthur Rackham. Many are particularly beautiful because of the enriched palette of Russell’s late period, especially his liberal use of purple for skies and shadows. Though not intended for any publication, “Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia” (1905)—one of several watercolors he painted of events during the Lewis and Clark expedition—embodies the spacious grandeur of academic history painting. In his magnificent though diminutive “Storm on Lake McDonald from Bull Head Lodge” (1906) he meets Homer on his own ground, exploiting the transparency of watercolor on white paper to render the effects of light against rocks, and through water and quick-moving clouds.
Whether you regard Russell as a visual counterpart to the authors Bret Harte and Zane Grey or as a Western American rejoinder to Europe’s Orientalist painters, this fine exhibition proves that his technical mastery and narrative power transcend all boundaries.
Article, “At Home on the Range” by Barrymore Laurence Scherer, April 2012.