Here it is, a New Year, and already we at The Jade Sphinx are thinking about the past. To be exact, the past that makes up our great American Western Myth. We spent the holiday season happily listening to Christmas carols, reading some of our favorite seasonal texts, and, of course … thinking about Westerns.
You mean you didn’t?
This Christmas we made our way through more of the Zane Grey (1872-1939), corpus, reading more of the letters of cowboy artist Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), watching a western with both (and I kid you not!) Ronald Colman (1891-1958) and Gary Cooper (1901-1961)… and thinking about Randolph Scott (1898-1987).
We will look at all of these this week, but let’s open with a droll evocation of where winter is heading this year with Russell’s wry and wonderful Meat’s Not Meat Till It’s in the Pan, painted in 1915. The work is oil on canvas, mounted on Masonite, and it currently resides in the Gilcrease Museum of Tulsa, OK.
It’s no secret that we here at The Jade Sphinx love the work of Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), the cowboy artist. The boyish Russell went West in his early youth, and worked as a cowboy, watching the waning days of the American West with an artist’s eye. He didn't seem to be very effective in the saddle, but it was all Charlie wanted and he was happy.
Charlie spent his artistic life drawing and painting the West that loomed so large in his personal myth. This delightful picture from 1915 is Charlie at his puckish best. A man of expansive, genial good humor and a delight in a good joke, Charlie was not immune to including humor in his work. Indeed, humor is one of the integral human experiences, and any aesthete is bereft if he does not fully embrace the lighter side of life.
Clearly our cowboy has done some winter hunting, but he was just a little too close to the edge of a gorge. He’s bagged his meat, but how will he get it from the outcropping on which it fell? Aside from the simple narrative of the painting, there is the sound emotional tenor of the work, which is … yeah, I’ve had days like that.
It was part of Charlie’s genius to set the work in the dead of winter; it would not nearly be as witty as a picture depicting a summer scene. The cold, the snow and the barren quality of the landscape all conspire to make the hunter’s challenge all the more grueling.
Again, let’s look at Charlie’s simple mastery of the medium. The dominant color is blue, but … look at what he does with it. Various shades of blue depict everything from cavernous depths, stony distances, cloudy skies, ice on the precipice, and the snow itself. There are even hints of blue in the rifle-barrel and upon the lighter-colored horse. Such versatility of shade, warmth and cold, and gradation of a single color is remarkable.
Charlie is also a master of body language. The vexation of the hunter is comically rendered without being over-the-top; the horses merely indifferent or simply miserable at being out in the weather.
Look at the circle formed by the horse’s nose pointing at the hunter, the gun butt pointing at the ram, the ram pointing to the scrub, pointing back at the horses. Charlie’s sense of composition was unerring.
It is astonishing that a painting that so deals with death can also be so light-hearted. Charlie creates a pyramid shape to draw attention to his hunter by having a dead steer create the left foundation, and a tangled mass of withered scrub form the right. But it is never gloomy or dour; in fact, it only calls to mind the quote by Mark Twain, who wrote, life is just one damn thing after another.
Tomorrow: Zane Grey!