- Butte, Montana's Pioneer
Artist Edgar S. Paxson
- by George Everett
Unlike other Western artists, including Charlie Russell and Frederic
Remington, Edgar S. Paxson painted what he knew. He had lived
in Montana from 1877 and personally interviewed and knew participants
of the era's major events. He painted Sitting Bull and Chief
Joseph, hunted with Chief Ten Doy of the Bannocks. He interviewed
Indian and white survivors of Custer's fateful encounter on the
Little Big Horn and visited the battlefield several times to
absorb as much detail as he could before painting his masterpiece
Custer's Last Stand.
He had an extensive collection of Indian artifacts that he sketched
from including Sioux and Cheyenne war shirts, clubs, rifles,
and lances, some of which had been collected
from the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the Battle of the
Rosebud. His collection of artifacts included 600 pieces and
his Butte studio attracted 40 to 50 visitors every weekend who
came as much to see the artifacts as the artist.
For the historical murals he painted for Montana's state Capitol
and the Missoula County Courthouse, Paxson intensively studied
the Journals of Lewis and Clark and knew many of the passages
Yet, he shrank from such historical detail when it may be demeaning
to persons he knew personally or to the ideals that they represented
to him. Paxson knew the Salish Chief Charlo as a friend and when
it came time to recount in a mural the removal of the Flatheads
from their ancestral home in the Bitterroot Valley to their new
reservation north of Missoula, Paxson closed his eye to historical
accuracy. He painted a group of well-clothed proud people on
prancing horses firing their rifles in the air as they proceeded
north. In fact, the procession was a sad one of bedraggled and
betrayed Indians who kept any weapons well hid for fear of sparking
a reprisal from their nervous white neighbors.
Unlike his contemporary and friend Charlie Russell, Paxson did
not paint from the point of view of someone nostalgic for a lost
era. Paxson welcomed the coming changes of the modern world in
his life and his art at the same time that he felt compelled
to document and honor the spirit of those who had inhabited the
land before. This welcoming of the present was vividly portrayed
in Early Transportation, a mural in the Missoula County Courthouse
where Indians hauling a travois wait alongside a mountain road
while a stagecoach passes in the other direction.
Paxson's accomplishments are all the more remarkable because
he had no formal art training. His natural talent was recognized
early, however, and his father had planned to apprentice his
son to paint theater sets in New York before Paxson abruptly
left for the west where he ended up in Deer Lodge, Montana, working
as a scout for a cattle company.
His only known artistic influence was Albert Bierstadt. As a
boy, Paxson viewed Bierstadt's paintings of the west in a gallery
in Buffalo, New York, but Paxson was completely self-taught,
drawing on what he learned from long sojourns in the wilderness
around him. Paxson's art was the effort of a talented pioneer
to document the pioneer west that he knew firsthand. One of the
hallmarks of his paintings is the historical accuracy he sought
in every effort.
"Paxson's most important contribution was that he sought
to capture the really significant events of the western frontier
and to give a sense of solemnity and weight to those events,"
said Dr. Sarah Boehme, curator of the Buffalo Bill Historical
Center where Paxson's masterpiece, Custer's Last Stand is displayed.
"In Custer's Last Stand, Paxson did historical research
and then reconstructed it imaginatively in a complex arrangement
of figures to summarize a great moment in history," said
Life as an artist was not easy in Deer Lodge and Paxson recounted
one disappointing trip from Deer Lodge to Great Falls to sell
a painting that cost him so much that he barely made enough to
cover the cost of the frame. Less than 40 miles to the East,
however, fortunes were being made and lavishly squandered in
the boomtown copper mining camp of Butte and as the riches accumulated
so did spending on the theater and the arts.
It's ironic that some of the most authentic Western paintings,
full of buckskins, Indians, wildlife and frontier characters
were produced by Paxson in a small studio just below the Steward
mine gallows frame in Butte, Montana. At closer look, however,
there were many reasons for Paxson to move to Butte.
During Paxson's years in Butte, the city was becoming a thriving
metropolis of high-rise brick buildings, electric streetcars,
and a robust theater scene. Butte was the biggest venue for traveling
big-name talent between Minneapolis and Seattle and all of the
biggest stars in show business came to perform on one of the
several theater stages there.
Paxson moved to Butte in 1880 to paint theater sets for producer
John Maguire in Butte's Renshaw Hall on West Park Street. Maguire
also managed theaters for others in smaller towns throughout
western Montana and Paxson painted elaborate sets for all of
them. Paxson followed Maguire when he opened his own theater,
the Grand Opera House, in 1885. The artist had his own studio
in the theater. He would often get reviews in the local papers
that lauded his elaborate sets with as much enthusiasm or more
as the performances on stage. Meanwhile, as his family grew,
Paxson supplemented his income by painting wall signs and he
also sold watercolors for use on ink blotters in local banks.
Maguire's Grand Opera House burned down in 1888 and it appears
that Paxson used the opportunity to transition his efforts more
on portrait painting in his new studio. They parted company soon
after with Maguire still owing Paxson $1,800, although Paxson
never had anything but praise for the man who Paxson called "a
pioneer of theatrical life in the Rockies."
theater sets and wall ads gave Paxson the income to support his
family while he worked for eight years to complete his masterpiece,
Custer's Last Stand, which is now displayed in
the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Paxson's
studio was situated on Woolman Street just below the black steel
gallows frame of the Steward Mine which is still standing today.
Paxson said that the painting took so long because the sulfurous
smoke that filled the skies from the smelters robbed the light
he needed. Indeed, for that same reason Paxson focused on small
portraits of Indian heads that make up the body of his work because
the light needed for larger portraits was so rare.
"In Custer's Last Stand you can see a muted color scheme,
a brown tonality that is typical to a number of Paxson's works,"
said Dr. Sarah Boehme. One explanation for such muted colors
may have been Paxson's need to cope with the clouds of smelter
smoke that occluded his light.
In 1906, the smoke from the mines that robbed his light was also
affecting his wife's health. A murder in his neighborhood and
other incidents of increasing violence in the city of Butte convinced
Paxson to move 120 miles to the west to Missoula.
Paxson lived in Missoula until his death in 1920. During that
time he painted murals that can be visited today in the Missoula
County Courthouse and the Montana State Capitol Building in Helena.
Although Paxson spent many years in Butte, he spent little time
documenting his urban surroundings. As often as he could, Paxson
took extended trips throughout the state and the region on hunting
trips that exposed him to some of the nation's wildest and most
primitive country. He would draw from these experiences to paint
the dwindling world of wilderness that was disappearing around
Among his many friends, Paxson counted his fellow artist Charlie
Russell. They became friends after Russell moved to Montana
in 1880. They were probably introduced by their mutual friend
and agent Charles Schatzlein, who owned a paint and art supply
business in Butte. Russell and Paxson went on several camping
and fishing trips together.
Russell would visit Paxson in Butte and
later in Missoula, arriving by train to Missoula from Great Falls.
On one occasion when the train arrived late in the morning, Russell
curled up in a buffalo robe on Paxson's porch until Paxson awoke.
They traveled together in 1908 to the buffalo roundup on the
Flathead Reservation. They exchanged paintings and jibes. Russell
would joke that Paxson couldn't paint an Indian and in turn Paxson
would cast aspersions on Russell's skill at sketching a horse.
In reality, Russell had the greatest respect for Paxson's talents
and told a friend "I can't paint an Indian head with Paxson."
At Paxson's death in 1919, Russell was serious in his tribute
to a true friend when he wrote, "Paxson was my friend, and
today the west that he knew is history that lives in books. His
brush told stories that people like to read...I am a painter,
too, but Paxson has done some things that I cannot do. He was
a pioneer and a pioneer painter."
Although Paxson and Russell sold paintings of the same subjects
during the same time and sometimes to the same people there were
a couple of reasons why Paxson never achieved the commercial
success and widespread fame that Charlie Russell did. Russell
didn't have any more business savvy than Paxson, but his wife
Nancy did and she forced dealers to pay what she thought her
husband's paintings were worth. At one point when she had arranged
a sale for a hefty sum, Russell complained "Nancy, them's
dead man's wages!"
Paxson never valued his work so high or worked as aggressively
to market his own work in the lucrative art markets back East.
During his life, Paxson painted almost 2,000 paintings. Many
were given away as gifts or sold for from $5 to $20 a piece.
Later, when he produced the series of historical murals for Missoula
County's Courthouse, he received $1,000.
By contrast, a lucrative calendar contract with the Brown and
Bigelow Company put Charlie Russell's art in front of millions
of Americans and helped to spread his fame. Also, Russell traveled
to the East occasionally to promote his work. Paxson rarely traveled
outside of Montana and the farthest east he ever went after moving
from New York to Montana was to visit the Columbian Exposition
of 1893 in Chicago where he sold three paintings.
Add to pioneer and painter the distinction of being a patriot
as well. Throughout his life, Paxson never passed an opportunity
to serve his country in time of conflict. As a boy, he served
as a drummer boy for recruits during the Civil War. Later he
served in the Montana state militia and helped to restore order
after a 4th of July riot in Butte. At the age of
47, when Paxson could have comfortably avoided a conflict, he
enlisted to serve in the Spanish-American War and went to Manila
in 1898 where he contracted malaria before returning home to
Butte. Upon his return, he sculpted an ornate archway to span
a Butte city street so that veterans from Southwest Montana could
parade underneath and receive a hero's welcome home.
Even as an old man when World War I began, he wrote to the War
Department and volunteered his services to drill recruits in
Missoula. Paxson's love of family, country and art were
woven into his last project before his death. His last painting
completed before his death was a portrait of his son Robert in
his lieutenant's uniform after his return from Europe.
Part of Paxson's obscurity is no doubt due to the fact that most
of his works remain hidden from the public in private collections.
Only a few galleries around the country display paintings by
E.S. Paxson. Paxson's work is most visible in Montana. The Buffalo Bill
Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming (720 Sheridan Ave.) on the east side
of Yellowstone Park displays two large Paxson paintings, Custer's Last
Stand and The Buffalo
On the other side of Yellowstone Park, you can get on the Paxson
trail in Bozeman, Montana and then follow Interstate 90 west.
Paxson's Death of John Bozeman is displayed in
the Museum of the Rockies
in Bozeman. Another 80 miles to the west is Butte, where Paxson
spent most of his years as a mature artist. One of his paintings,
of the survivor of Custer's Last Stand, the Crow scout Curley.
Stop in to visit The Arts
Chateau at 321 W. Broadway.
If you would like to detour 60 miles to the
north you can visit the Montana State Capitol in Helena where
Paxson's murals are on display. Forty more miles west
of Butte is Deer Lodge where you can get a vivid sense of what
life was like there for Paxson by visiting the replica of a pioneer
working ranch, the Grant Kohrs Ranch.
Eighty miles west of Deer Lodge is the city of Missoula where
Paxson lived out the remainder
of his days. Here you can see Paxson's murals inside the County
Courthouse (200 W. Broadway Street) and visit the Missoula Museum
of the Arts (335 N. Pattee) where one of Paxson's paintings, In the
is publicly displayed.
Want to know more? Paxson's legacy has been well served by his
grandson, William M. Paxson. He has written a book that contains
details of Paxson's life as well as color plates of his art,
titled E.S. Paxson Frontier Artist. To see more,
including several sketches and paintings by Paxson, visit http://home1.gte.net/espaxson/.