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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 Paxson in his studio; Courtesy of the Montana Historical Societycollected 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 by heart.

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 Dr. Boehme.

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."

A Section of Paxson's Custer's Last StandPainting 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 him.

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.

Chief Charlo by Edgar S. PaxsonRussell 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 Hunt.

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 E.S. Paxson Frontier ArtistPaxson 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 Enemy's Country, 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/.

This site is designed and maintained by George Everett.
© 2002 by George Everett. All rights reserved.
An earlier version of this story appeared in Wild West Magazine.
 
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