With an upsurge in the popularity of Western art, dealers of cowboy paintings, sculptures and collectibles are roping in revenues

Cowboy art corrals collectors: with an upsurge in the popularity of Western art, dealers of cowboy paintings, sculptures and collectibles are roping in revenues

Laura Meyers

There is a genuine bonanza these days in Western art. Collectors are stampeding to collect landscapes, wildlife paintings, pictures of horses, cattle images of Native American culture. But they are especially interested in the portraits of the true heart of the West: the American Cowboy (and Cowgirl), past and present.

Indeed, towns all around the country and Canada have been brimming with Stetsons and Wranglers, Rocketbuster boots, sterling inlaid spurs and leather, lots of fringed leather. There’s a veritable fashion parade of carved belts with engraved silver-and-gold buckles set with diamonds and other precious stones in cities from Las Vegas to Alberta, Canada. These people are in search of Western living and Western art.

During Rodeo Days in Las Vegas, held the first two weeks of December each year, nearly 40,000 cowboys and cowgirls, some of them true-to-life ranchers and ranch hands, many more of the indoor enthusiast variety, swarm into Sin City to attend the National Finals Rodeo. Truth be told, they’re also going shopping: these visitors pour more than $34 million in nongaming revenue into the local economy. And they spend a bucket of that cash at the annual Cowboy Christmas Gift Show, a showcase for hundreds of Western artists and craftsmen, and at the newly-launched Cowboy Artists and Photographers Art Show.

Two months earlier, many of the same well-heeled Westerners jetted into Cody, Wyo., an historic Rocky Mountain community on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, for its annual Rendezvous Royale, Western Design Conference and Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale. By the time of the auctioneer’s final hammer, collectors had spent $522,135.

In January, many traveled again to Denver for the National Western Stock Show and Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale. Still others headed to Mesa, Ariz., for the annual High Noon Western Antiques Show and Auction. Or it’s off to Los Angeles on Feb. 1 for the Masters of the American West exhibit and sale benefitting the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. Or it’s Montana in March for an annual Western art expo and auction of original Western art supporting the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls. Or in July they head to Cheyenne for Frontier Days, or to the Calgary Stampede in Alberta, Canada, for the annual Western Art Show.

To these traveling enthusiasts and collectors, Western art is the real deal, and the cowboy is their hero.

Call of the Cowboy

“Cowboys represent an icon; a time when a man’s word meant something,” said artist David DeVary, who literally makes icons of his portraits of cowboys and cowgirls by adding gold and silver leaf to his paintings. In the world of Western art, the cowboy is a straightforward figure. “The good guys wear white hats,” said DeVary. “The cowboy is a guy you can trust. He’ll do what he says and says what he’ll do.”

“Cowboys stand up for what’s right,” added Antonia Clark, president/publisher at Toh-Atin Gallery and Publishing Company, which specializes in Western genre imagery and publishes work by John Fawcett, Chris Owen, Terri Kelly Moyers, Tim Cox, Loren Entz and Jason Rich, who all depict cowboys and the cowboy way of life in their art. “People are asking for more cowboy art and more Western art. After Sept. 11, we had the best year we ever had, and 2002 was even better. I guess, as our lives get more frantic and complicated, people are yearning for a simpler time and a simpler way of life–and that’s embodied in the Western genre.”

And prices are riding tall in the saddle. Living cowboy artists are routinely rustling up sales in the five and six figures for individual works. There’s also a gold rush in the market for period Western realist masters, according to Eric Widing, head of Christie’s American art department, who said pre-1950 Western painting is one of the fastest-growing sectors in American art. In 2001, a Charles M. Russell (1864-1926) painting set a new high at $2.3 million. Two years earlier a Frederic Remington (1861-1909) oil fetched $5.2 million.

Bronco Bustin’ Sales

The annual round-up of results from the major Western art sales and auctions tell the same story. In Great Falls, for instance, last year’s take from the sale of 300 pieces (which encompassed period works, including paintings by Russell, as well as works by living Western artists) was $1.45 million. Equally impressive: 1,000 people paid between $125 and $175 apiece to attend the auction and related reception. In Los Angeles a year ago, the Autry netted $1.4 million at its Masters sale. In Oklahoma City, the annual Prix de West sale supporting the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum has doubled its receipts since 1995; its June 2002 sale of 275 sculptures and paintings garnered $2.5 million.

The 30th annual Cowboy Artists of America show and sale at the Phoenix Art Museum hosted nearly 600 collectors in October, each paying $200 to $250 for the right to attend and bid on 135 works, some in editions, made specially for the event by the 27 living artists who comprise the CAA. The final tally: 151 works (including editioned bronzes) sold, with total sales of $2.1 million, up from $1.7 million in 2001. Nearly 40 percent of these works depicted cowboys, due in part to the show rules requiring the artists to portray a living subject, whether human or equine.

The Coeur d’Alene Art Auction in Reno, Nev., which concentrates on works created from 1840 to 1940, has the strongest sales in the Western art field, with figures that jumped from $8 million in 2000 to $14 million in 2001 (though they lagged back to $7,019,925 in 2002) and an aggregate of $60 million in the past five years. “We stick with good, historic pieces and artists who have solid track records at auction,” explained Bob Drummond, co-owner of Coeur d’Alene. Top-selling Western artists in the 2002 auction were Maynard Dixon, Edgar Payne, Charles M. Russell, Birger Sandzen, Edgar S. Paxson, Tom Lovell, Philip R. Goodwin, Nicolai Fechin and E. William Gollings, whose 1925 oil painting “Montana Cowboy” was hammered down at $82,500.

Cowboy collectibles are just as hot. At last year’s Cody Old West show and auction, held each June in Cody, Wyo., a pair of circa 1893 Buffalo Bill Wild West lithographic posters brought $25,200. An 1880s carved mechanical wooden cowgirl with its original paint sold for $17,000. And in Mesa, Ariz., last year, the High Noon auction, which features paintings and drawings from famed cowboy artists like Edward Borein, Will James and James Boren along with Hollywood Cowboy memorabilia and artifacts, set a record with the sale of Roy Rogers’ saddle set for more than $700,000.

Accompanying the High Noon auction is a collectibles show with 250 dealers of Western art and artifacts, such as sterling silver saddles, guns toted by Hollywood film stars like Clint Eastwood, Wild West posters and movie posters (vintage B-movie Westerns command prices start at $75; a 1936 stone lithograph poster for the film Trail Dust has a retail price of $850). “Cowgirls, cowgirl spurs and dresses and photographs are one of the hottest areas of collecting right now,” added Danny Verrier, Native American and Western art specialist at High Noon. “There’s less of it surviving. But people are interested, and there’s a new Cowgirls Hall of Fame [in Fort Worth, Texas], and that’s a big thing.”

The Romance of the Cowboy

Perhaps no time or place in history has so captured the popular imagination, in America and worldwide, as the taming of the Western frontier in the 19th century. A powerful and compelling dream of a prosperous life spurred thousands of adventurers and pioneers to move to the promised lands of the West. Their hopes and dreams, difficulties and triumphs, have been chronicled ever since in words and pictures.

“The idea of the West,” observed Michael Duty, executive director of the National Center for American Western Art in Kerrville, Texas, “remains a powerful force in American culture. It is, for many Americans, our creation myth–the idea of picking up and discovering a New World and starting over. The lure of a new land is iconic and embodied in the idea of the West. A lot of Western art is pretty basic, depicting a hard job well done. And the figure of the cowboy does seem to encompass all of that. It strikes a resonant chord.”

The true West was populated by a variety of emigrants, including fur trappers, prospectors, cavalrymen and assorted thieves and rustlers. But it was the open-range cowboy, of course, who fueled the popular imagination, then as now. The actual cowhand of the 1860s to 1880s was most commonly a low-paid hired hand who withstood unending hard work and frequently had a short life expectancy, said art historian J. Gray Sweeney in his book, Masterpieces of Western American Art. Yet, “there was something admirable about a man willing to drive hundreds of cantankerous creatures across miles of difficult terrain, risking exposure to the elements, rustlers and unfriendly Indians. His mystique Was further enhanced by the accouterments he adapted from the Hispanic vaquero–the broad-brimmed hat to protect him from the sun, the chaps that guarded his trousers from high grass and brush, and the spurs he used to engage his horse.”

By the 1890s, the heyday of the cowboy was over. The railroads had traversed the country, eliminating the need for long cattle drives and thus the cowboy. But rather than fading into the sunset, the idea of the cowboy, said Sweeney, “flourished, living on as a national icon in art, literature, film and television.”

The figure of the cowboy became the West’s protagonist, a romantic and daring character who loved the outdoors, a self-reliant individualist with a virtuous sense of fair play. By the turn of the century, particularly as portrayed in Remington’s popular art, the cowboy had emerged as the embodiment of freedom and the unfettered, wide-open spaces of the West. (Unlike New York illustrator Remington, the self-taught artist Russell was a genuine Montana cowboy. His works often depict “cowboy fun,” portraying reckless, rough-and-ready fellas drinking and hell-raising after a hard day’s work.)

For most of the traditional Western art paintings and sculptures, the region and the era have been depicted in “a romanticized view,” said Heidi Theios, gallery director at Nicholas Fine Art in Billings, Mont. That is one reason, she speculated, that “a lot of Western art is still not accepted at all in Eastern circles and with critics. But America is such a young country, and this is a true American art.”

There has always been a critical conflict in “old school” Western genre art. On one hand, as Theios observed, Western artists depict the myth and romance of the West and seldom its harsh truths. “The West of the imagination has always been a fairly cleaned-up version,” added Duty. The content and implied narration of the historic works supported the notion of America’s Manifest Destiny and the idea that Native Americans were invariably bad, while settlers (the White Man) were invariably good.

At the same time, Western artists are exacting and relentless in their pursuit of historical verisimilitude. “These guys try hard to be accurate in their depictions,” noted Bill Rey, owner of Claggett/Rey Gallery in Vail, Colo. Clark of Toh-Atin agreed. “They do strive for absolute authenticity,” she said. The artists talk about it a lot: Would that cowboy in 1851 have a holster that looks like that? Would he use a tie-down like that?” A cowboy has to have the right leggings, and the right tack, for the era in which he lived. “You’ve got to know when they wore shotgun chaps and when they wore batwing chaps,” said artist Steven Lang. “You can’t use batwing chaps on an 1850s cowboy. I’m trying to paint for the two percent of people who know that.”

Indeed, when the four founding members (Joe Beeler, Charlie Dye, John Hampton and George Phippen) of what became Cowboy Artists of America first met in Sedona, Ariz., in 1963 to establish the association, they set as their mission “to ensure authentic representation of the life in the West, as it was and is.” And although today’s contemporary cowboy artist may choose to depict contemporary ranch life, others still focus on the Old West, haunting libraries and archives for their research, and building up personal collections of photographs, Western artifacts and ephemera to help guarantee that their portrayals are accurate.

In Western works past and present, said Duty, there is another common thread. “There’s no time, from the 1830s to the present, when there isn’t a profound sense of loss. What we imagined we never really could hold on to.” Even the grand Western wilderness landscapes of Albert Bierstadt, painting in the 1860s and ’70s, and Thomas Moran, painting in the latter decade, are accompanied by a sense of sorrow that the beauty of these landscapes was quickly falling to the axe of new settlements.

The longing for a lost way of life is even more pronounced in the paintings of cowboys, according to Western art dealers like Rey. “A part of what is attractive for people in these works is their love for a tradition which is disappearing or has disappeared,” he said. “Even Charles Russell, painting a century ago, said the Old West is gone.”

Some of today’s cowboy artists, such as Gordon Snidow, paint to preserve what is left of that life. “There are few ranches where preservation of our western heritage is important,” Snidow observed in the book Gordon Snidow: My Story by Peter Hassrick. “Where they still take the wagon out. Where cowboying is still done in the traditional way by `dragging calves to the fire.’ Where an effort is made to keep the Star Mill working, not because it is the best or the easiest way to draw water but because it is a part of history. Too soon, the sun will set on the last Star Mill, and not long after that, the last cowboy.”

Snidow devotes his artistic focus to documenting contemporary ranch hands, typically depicted as ordinary, unglamorous men (and women–Snidow was among the first Western artists to celebrate the liberated modern cowgirl) rather than heroes.

The Old West Fades, A New West Arrives

“More and more lately, people are buying [works portraying] today’s working cowboys with today’s slickers and tack,” said Theios. “These works don’t have the same romanticized view of the West.”

For, instance, Nelson Boren has portrayed cowboys sleeping in wheelbarrows and other unromantic poses. Too, Boren has broken with the narrative tradition in Western art. He crops a scene, painting a part of a boot, or an extreme close-up of a cowboy hands working on his gear. In the watercolor “What A Kiss!!” Boren paints a cowboy’s boots, spurs and chaps from the knee down, lined up next to his gal’s boots. “In my paintings, I want to portray a glimpse rather than the whole story … I especially enjoy capturing the weathered look of old leather and rusty spurs,” said Boren. “I see American history in these elements of cowboy life.”

Artist DeVary would disagree with Theios’ view that today’s works are less romanticized. “Being of the age where cowboys are my heros. I still think about the romance of the freedom a cowboy represents, being able to ride forever under big skies.” And yet, his cowboys often do wear yellow slickers and ride motorcycles; his cowgirls are assertive and even a bit provocative.

“I do have a different take on the whole Western painting thing,” DeVary, a Chicago transplant to New Mexico, admitted. “My work isn’t classical, but rather a very contemporary look at the West. One of the things I don’t concentrate on is the working cowboy. It’s not where my imagination really lies. Even at the rodeo, I would paint the guys before or after, but not on the bulls.”

DeVary and Boren are members of an art collective with a more contemporary approach which has dubbed itself “the Other Side of the West.” Its members, including Donna Howell-Sickles, Ben Wright and founders J.E. Knauf and Maria Sharylen, among others, are integrating Western iconography (cowboys, stage-coaches, horses, boots, spurs) with Modernist and post-Modern aesthetics.

A common element for cowboy artists is the use of a vigorous, bright, saturated color palette. Artist Larry Pirnie uses wild, expressive colors influenced by Matisse, Diebenkorn and Lichtenstein; red and orange horses kick up yellow dust as they race through turquoise tumbleweed in the painting, “In Hot Pursuit.” But along with Modern Art masters, Pirnie was influenced by Hollywood cowboys. “My earliest memory of making a picture was drawing the Lone Ranger when I was six years old,” he noted. “I’ve never stopped making pictures of cowboys and horses. My fantasy was kept alive with a steady diet of Red Ryder comics, Charlie Russell calendar prints and Western movies.”

Western Art Shows

Autry Museum’s Masters of American West Fine Art Exhibition and Safe, Los Angeles, Feb. 1 to March 2, (323) 667-2000, www.autry-museum.org

C.M. Russell Auction of Original Western Art & Exhibitors Show, Great Falls, Mont., March 19 to 22, 800-803-3351, www.glaf.com

National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum Prix de West, Oklahoma City, Okla. Sale June 13-14, Exhibition through Sept. 7. (405) 478-2250, www.nationalcowboymuseum.org

Cody Old West Show & Auction, Cody, Wyo., June 27 to 29, (307) 587-9014, www.codyoldwest.com

The Western Art Show at the Calgary Stampede, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, July 4 to 13, (403) 261-0101, www.westernshowcase.com

Cheyenne Frontier Days Western Art Show and Sale, Cheyenne, Wyo., July 18 to 27, www.cfdrodeo.com

Coeur d’Alene Art Auction at Reno, Nev., July 26, (208) 772-9009, www.cdaartauction.com

Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale/Rendezvous Royale/Western Design Conference, Cody, Wyo., Sept. 24 to 27, (307) 587-5002, www.buffalobillartshow.com

Cowboy Artists of America Sale & Exhibition, Phoenix Art Museum, October 2003, www.phxart.org

High Noon Wild West Show & Auction, Mesa, Ariz., January 2004, (310) 202-9010, www.highnoon.com

Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale at the National Western Stock Show, Denver, Colo., January 2004, (303) 297-1166, www.nationalwestern.com

SOURCES

* Claggett/Rey Gallery, 800-252-4438

* Cowboy Artists and Photographers, 800-773-1168

* Cowboy Artists of America and the National Center for American Western Art, (830) 896-2553

* Nicholas Fine Art, (406) 256-8607

* Simpson Gallagher Gallery, (307) 587-4022

* Toh-Atin Gallery and Publishing Co., 800-509-3888

* Wilde Meyer Gallery, (480) 947-1489

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