‘I am a native of Edmonton, Alberta—originally a Hudson’s Bay Co. fur trading post—and though I trained in U.S. history and did my graduate work in Wyoming and Texas, I bring a Canadian perspective to American culture’
Alberta-born author and historian Brian W. Dippie is a recognized authority on the Western United States, especially with regard to art. Dippie’s books include Remington & Russell: The Sid Richardson Collection (1982) and Catlin and His Contemporaries: The Politics of Patronage (1990), and he recently curated “Take Two: George Catlin Revisits the West” at the Sid Richardson Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Running through May 31, the exhibit centers on 17 paintings from Catlin’s second Indian Gallery (or “Cartoon Collection”), which the artist compiled while living abroad in the 1850s and ‘60s. But Dippie, a past president of the Western History Association, isn’t just an art historian. His other titles include The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (1982) and Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth (1994). Although he retired from teaching at the University of Victoria in 2009, Dippie hasn’t slowed down much. He recently took time to speak with Wild West about Western art, artists and history.
How did the Catlin exhibit at the Sid Richardson Museum come about?
The Sid Richardson owns an excellent collection of Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell paintings and a few works by other artists, including W.R. Leigh and Charles Schreyvogel. It opened as a free public museum in 1982 and is a must-visit when you are in downtown Fort Worth. Recently it has been holding special exhibitions—Remington’s bronzes, Russell’s watercolors and the like—borrowing works from other collections.
The opportunity to mount a George Catlin exhibition came about at the suggestion of Nancy Anderson, the head of American and British paintings at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., and a longtime friend of the Sid Richardson. When the museum staff decided to explore the possibility, I was brought in to curate the exhibition. As author of the catalog of the Sid Richardson’s permanent collection (Remington & Russell), I have enjoyed a close working relationship with the museum over the years.
I’ve only guest curated a few Western art exhibitions—at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, in Jackson, Wyo., and the Glenbow Museum, in Calgary (my favorite marked the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede, in 2012, and involved reassembling the exhibition Russell held at the very first Stampede)—but I’d never had the chance to help mount an exhibition of Catlin paintings, and the opportunity proved irresistible.
“Take Two” draws from Catlin’s second gallery. How do its paintings compare with those from his first gallery?
In his second gallery Catlin replicated on pasteboard those paintings he had done in the 1830s (and lost to his creditors in 1852). Practical considerations, especially the need for fast drying times, supposedly dictated the format—oils thinly applied to rigid panels—when he painted in the tropics on a series of still mysterious trips to South America in the 1850s. Did he actually make those trips? This much is certain: Catlin added about 300 pictures—showing tribes along the Amazon, etc.—to his original body of work. Together the old and new subjects totaled a collection of some 600 “Indian cartoons,” which he exhibited in Belgium and then New York and Washington on his return home in 1871 after an absence of more than 30 years.
For the purposes of “Take Two” I chose only paintings of North American tribes re-created from tracings Catlin had made of his original portraits, with an emphasis on tribes from the central and southern Plains (Comanche, Kiowa, Caddo, Cheyenne and Pawnee)—a “Texas twist” to the show. Catlin’s original gallery featured portraits as well as landscapes and what he called “Indian amusements”—hunts, dances, battles and the like. The second collection departed from the first in replacing individual bust portraits with standing figures, often grouped several to a painting. They have a charm all their own for viewers familiar with Catlin’s celebrated portraits.
What spurred your interest in the West?
I am a native of Edmonton, Alberta—originally a Hudson’s Bay Co. fur trading post—and though I trained in U.S. history and did my graduate work in Wyoming and Texas, I bring a Canadian perspective to American culture. One of its defining features for me as an outsider is its distinctive frontier mythology. Like every kid who grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, I was smitten with the West. We played lots of cowboys and Indians, blazed away with our cap pistols, took in B Westerns at our local movie theaters, read comic books featuring the cowboy stars of the day—and a few Indian heroes, like Straight Arrow—and went to sleep at night dreaming of wide-open spaces and horses with names like Trigger, Silver and (Straight Arrow again) Fury. My friends all grew up and left the horseplay behind. I guess I never did. I filled scrapbooks with Indian pictures, attended art school and drew constantly as a kid. Indian heads were my specialty, and as a teenager, working in Eagle Prismacolors, I made a few bucks copying Winold Reiss Blackfeet portraits and an array of color postcards. It taught me to look carefully at pictures with an eye to connections to other pictures. I still have a good visual memory, but it didn’t take me long to realize I did not have the creativity an artist requires—a distinctive vision and the ability to express it. I worshipped Russell, because he did. And on family vacations to Montana, beginning in 1949, I made regular pilgrimages to his log cabin studio in Great Falls.
What role did Catlin play in the development of Western art?
Catlin’s travels in the 1830s up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and down to the southern Plains, painting as he went, made him the most important artist to focus on Indians prior to the Civil War. Others, like the Swiss Karl Bodmer, followed closely on his heels and perhaps painted with more scientific precision, but Catlin led the way.
How critical was government and public/private support in that era?
Art patronage was still in its infancy in America, and Catlin spent a lifetime trying to capitalize on his work at home and abroad. In a republic private citizens or the government itself are the best bets for patronage, and Catlin struggled to interest Congress in acquiring his Indian Gallery. Along the way he made a living through public exhibitions of his paintings and the publication of books and portfolios. It was a hard go, and rivals did not make things easier. Alfred Jacob Miller, who painted Indians and mountain men in 1837, like Bodmer, had a private patron to pay his way. Seth Eastman, an Army officer, painted Indians where he was stationed, on the Mississippi and in Texas, and always enjoyed a regular salary. Eastman sought government commissions for his art but never produced an Indian Gallery as such, unlike the Irish-born Canadian Paul Kane and the American John Mix Stanley, who did in the 1840s. It was a slap in the face for Catlin when Eastman endorsed Stanley’s work as “far superior,” undercutting Catlin’s last desperate bid for Congressional patronage in 1852 before creditors closed in.
Did the artists get along with their Indian subjects?
Of the artists mentioned, oddly enough, it was Eastman who formed the most intimate bond with his subjects. Stationed at Fort Snelling, he sired a daughter by a Santee Sioux woman in 1831, becoming the grandfather of the noted Sioux medical doctor and author Charles A. Eastman. There’s a story for the romancers.
How influential were the works of Catlin and others on later artists such as Remington, Russell, Wyeth or even today’s contemporary painters?
The most influential of the early painters of Indians were Catlin and Bodmer, because their work was the most widely reproduced in books. Remington and Russell knew their work and were influenced in their choice of subjects by what they saw. Stanley’s fate was ironic: Having squeezed out Catlin for patronage in Washington, he exhibited his own Indian Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution beginning in 1852, and it was still on display when fire ravaged the building in 1865 and reduced most of his collection to ashes. It would be easy to call it poetic justice, but in truth we are all the losers, as a forthcoming book and exhibition of the Stanley art that survives will make amply clear.
If you had to choose between Remington and Russell, whose work would come out on top?
Darrell Royal, football coach of the Texas Longhorns when I attended UT-Austin in the 1960s (and coach of my hometown Edmonton Eskimos when I attended my first full season of Canadian Football League games in 1953), used to say about his decision whether to pass or run the ball, “You gotta dance with the one that brung you.” So, if it comes down to choosing between Remington and Russell, my oldest loyalty means I have to give the nod to Charlie. He was less technically proficient than Remington, but he always put a slice of heart in his pictures, and his own abiding loyalty to the Old West, particularly the Montana of his youth, never waned.
Do you have a particular favorite painting?
I have no favorite Russell or Remington. They struck many memorable notes in bronze and paint.
Consider Russell in his prime. A favorite painting of cowboys at play? Perhaps Loops and Swift Horses Are Surer Than Lead. What a setting! As for cowboys at work, The Slick Ear is a study in Russell light. A favorite Indian action painting? When Blackfeet and Sioux Meet. A favorite quiet Indian painting? The 1910 Trouble Hunters in oil, and the 1908 First Wagon Trail in watercolor. As for Indian women? In the Wake of the Buffalo Runners in oil and Sun Worship in Montana in watercolor are hard to beat. A favorite buffalo painting? When the Land Belonged to God. Other wildlife? The Exalted Ruler. Mountain men? Free trappers. Freighters? The Wagon Boss. Canadian Mounted Police? Single-Handed. Hunting scenes? A half-dozen buffalo hunts and a slew of encounters with furious grizzlies come to mind. And on and on.
The same applies to Remington. I’ll spare you a list, but Ridden Down is a favorite, set in the full glare of day, and In From the Night Herd a haunting nocturne.
Any little-known tidbits on Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell?
Russell was interested in what other artists—especially those in his own line—painted. Remington? His critical standards were severe and unsparing when applied to his own work. In an annual purge he burned many paintings collectors today would pay a king’s ransom to own. It’s also worth noting that both men were thoughtful readers who went well beyond personal experience in their art.
What’s next for you in “retirement”?
As a retiree I have the pleasure of time to work on various projects that interest me. I have a few more things I’d like to say about George Custer. Western art, and especially Russell’s art, remain preoccupations. There’s always more to learn, and we are marking the centennials of high points in his career, including the shows at home and in Canada and England in the 19-teens that defined his enduring artistic legacy. I’m hoping to mount an exhibition of books from Russell’s library, which appeals to me as a book collector myself. In my fondest dreams it will serve as a rejoinder to our age’s indifference to the glories of print on paper! WW
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Wild West.