Introduction from Dr. Larry Len Peterson
One would be hard pressed to select another Western American artist who was as versatile, imaginative, and talented as Maynard Dixon. In 1994 the C.M. Russell Museum hosted “Desert Dreams,” an impressive traveling exhibition of seventy of the artist’s works, which was curated by Donald J. Hagerty who had published the landmark Desert Dreams: The Art and Life of Maynard Dixon a year earlier. He accompanied the exhibition with this fine article in “Russell’s West.”
Dixon was one of the few artists who painted the West and was actually born in the West. Lafayette Maynard Dixon was born in the cattle town of Fresno, California January 24, 1875 and showed exceptional artistic talent as a youth. As a child he suffered from asthma and later as an adult battled chronic emphysema from smoking. At sixteen years old he wrote, “I am determined to devote my life to illustrating the Old West,” and sent two sketches to Frederic Remington, his childhood hero. Remington replied, “… You draw better at your age than I did at the same age…if you imitate any other man ever so little you are ‘gone’… above all draw-draw-draw-draw-and always from nature.”
Attending the California School of Design in San Francisco in 1893 for a brief time—three months—Dixon left to create illustrations for periodicals, especially the Overland Monthly whose art director touted him as Remington’s equal. He also garnered praise from Charles Lummis—founder of the Southwest Museum and the Indian rights group, the Sequoya League—who was one of the first to urge him to become a professional painter. He advised Dixon to “travel East to see the Real West.” Taking Pop’s advice, in 1902 Dixon made a trip to Arizona and produced stunning illustrations for Sunset magazine, which started a long association between the artist and the periodical. The Southern Pacific Railway founded Sunset in May 1898 as a way to explore and celebrate life in the land west of the Rockies.
One year after Dixon married Lillian West Toby, his studio was destroyed on April 18, 1906 by the devastating San Francisco earthquake, which leveled much of the city. Subsequently, he moved to New York City. Edward Borein had also relocated there, and his studio became a gathering place for artists such as Philip R. Goodwin, Charles M. Russell, and Dixon. The “Golden Age of Illustration” was in full swing, and Dixon over the years completed works for numerous magazines—including Life, The Pacific Monthly, Standard Oil Bulletin, Touring Topics, Century, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and McClure’s—and for books by authors such as Jack London, O. Henry, Mary Austin, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, and Clarence Mulford.
In 1909 Dixon accepted an invitation to tour the Northern Rockies with his friend Charles Moody, a physician at the Sand Point Agency. Dixon ventured to Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho and then by horseback to the Saint Ignatius Mission on the Flathead Indian Reservation north of Missoula, Montana. Several paintings, including Flathead Indian & Pony and Flathead Brave, resulted from the visit.
A 1917 commission to paint Blackfeet in Glacier National Park from the Great Northern Railway president Louis W. Hill followed. Dixon enjoyed a visit with Charlie and Nancy Russell at Bull Head Lodge. However, due to the war, the United States Railroad Administration prevented the Great Northern from purchasing the paintings Dixon had completed in Glacier. In a letter to an artist friend in 1917 Maynard stated, “I did not think too much of the mountains, but the Blackfeet are the best Indians I have seen yet, bar none.” Storytellers, Evening on the Blackfeet Reservation, and Prairie Evening were inspired by this trip.
Battling depression, Dixon and his wife—who also suffered from depression and alcoholism—in 1917 divorced. He wouldn’t be single for long. By 1921 Dixon had ended his illustration career so he could focus on studio painting. In late 1919 Dixon had met Dorothea Lange, a brilliant young photographer who had set up a portrait studio in Hill Tolerton’s Print Room in San Francisco. The courtship was short, and they married on March 21, 1920 in her studio. Although a major influence on his Depression-era art, Lange and Dixon eventually divorced in 1935 after having two sons—John and Dan.
In January 1924 the Russells headed to California for the winter. On the way—as they did several times—they stopped by Maynard Dixon’s studio in downtown San Francisco. In 1961 Lange recalled the day Charlie came to visit his friend Dixon. The photographs she took of Russell are some of his most memorable and haunting. [see Charles M. Russell, Photographing the Legend: A Biography in Words and Pictures (2014) by Dr. Larry Len Peterson]:
As I look at the photograph, what I remember is the atmosphere, the light, the qualities of easy-going conversation or communication between Charlie Russell and Maynard Dixon, in whose studio it was made. I was not a participant; I was just there and the camera was with me. I saw it and I did it. Charlie Russell did not sit for me. I doubt if he knew that the picture had been made, for they were in conversation and the camera was not the reason for the visit. However, I do know that his was a serious conversation. They were not on this occasion spinning yarns, or trading anecdotes on western lore, or entertaining each other, which both of these men knew how to do very well. I seem to remember Charlie Russell was just passing through town. I never saw him again, or heard of his being in San Francisco again.
This is the most I can dig out of my memory today, little enough, but it was nevertheless an afternoon which has remained with me. It had a quality not unlike other rare occasions, when I have been in the presence of old-type American Indians. There is a sort of echo, which remains and is unforgettable.
Dixon’s amazing talents resulted in providing sketches in 1931 for the design of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco—and choosing the color for the bridge. From that time on, he focused mainly on painting desert landscapes. Dixon’s greatest recognition was received in 1932 from the National Academy of Design, which awarded him the Henry Ward Ranger Prize—the most prestigious artist award in the country—for his Depression-era Shapes of Fear, a favorite of many Dixon fans. In 1956 Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design donated the painting to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. In 1937 Dixon married a talented, young artist named Edith Hamlin. They would paint together, and Edith tutored Dixon on mural painting. That same year BYU Business Dean, Herald R. Clark, purchased eighty-five of his paintings, sketches, and drawings for $3,700 on behalf of the Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah—a huge sum during the Depression, but a wise move. That transaction is considered one of the most important in the history of Western American art. Teetering on destitution, Dixon was saved financially by the sale.
Even with professional success, Dixon suffered a nervous breakdown, underwent prostate surgery, and experienced worsening emphysema. He and Hamlin moved from San Francisco to Mount Carmel, Utah in 1940 and built a summer home. In 1939 they had spent time in Tucson, Arizona and two years later completed a colonial style adobe home there where they lived in the winters. As his health failed, in 1942 Dixon finished his last public mural Palomino Ponies for the Canoga Park, Los Angeles post office. A year later, his last book illustration was completed for a new printing of Francis Parkman’s Oregon Trail. He also penned stories and reminiscences for Arizona Highways. In the last year of his life, Dixon finished his final mural for the Santa Fe Railroad’s Los Angeles ticket office. At the time, he was on continuous oxygen for emphysema. Five days after its instillation, on November 14, 1946 Dixon died of a heart attack in his hometown of Tucson. His ashes were placed in a Hopi bowl, and Edith buried it on a hillside overlooking their home in Mount Carmel. Edith Hamlin would be her husband’s biggest promoter after he died. Some of his notoriety today is a tribute to her unending determination that her husband and his art would not be forgotten—much like Nancy Russell. She was immensely successful.
Dixon historian; author; and owner of the Medicine Man Gallery and the Maynard Dixon Museum in Tucson, Dr. Mark Sublette, wrote, “Dixon made critical decisions beginning at an early age, foregoing formal schooling. Traveling east to understand the West became the nidus for his life’s trajectory. Riding 1,000 miles on horseback with Edward Borein in 1901, Dixon takes a trip that influences all his subsequent cowboy imagery. Each journey, each illustration, each mural completed, every gallery show, and every job leads Dixon’s development as an artist. Some journeys are more important than others, but Dixon’s never afraid to take the less-traveled route.” Dr. Sublette is our 2022 C.M. Russell Heritage Award recipient and will also be our speaker on the life and art of Maynard Dixon at the Educational Symposium on Saturday, August 20, during The Russell event. It’s a must-see event. After the lecture, there will be a book signing for his critically acclaimed Maynard Dixon’s West: Along the Distant Mesa (2018).
Note: All images are reproduced from The American West Reimagined by Dr. Larry Len Peterson (2021)
Charles M. Russell and Maynard Dixon
Donald J. Hagerty
Russell’s West: The C.M. Russell Museum Magazine, Volume 2, No. 1
By the time of his death in 1946, Maynard Dixon had achieved considerable acclaim as one of the West’s leading artists. From the beginning, Dixon was different-an authentic, iconoclastic, self-created individual. Born in Fresno, California in 1875, he had no formal academic art training except for three miserable months at San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in early 1893, and he did not, as so many American artists would, make an obligatory pilgrimage to Paris for study. Disdainful and bothered, yet intrigued and involved by the self-absorbed onslaught of Modernism in the art world, he would develop by the 1920s two enduring themes in his work: the timeless truth of the immense western landscape and the religious mysticism of the Native American.
In reality, two Maynard Dixons existed, as exemplified in his body of work. Part of his art lamented the “flickering out of old campfires,” knowing the change was coming, an Old West departing and a New West arriving. Like many other American artists at that time, Dixon, contemptuous of fashion and convention, resisted inroads made on the West by the nation’s rapid urbanization and industrial progress.
The other Dixon and his art emerged in the early 1920s as a clear, unequivocal product from the reality of the American West’s landscapes. Infused with Dixon’s consistent philosophy of art and life and his search for meaningful goals in an increasingly technological era, his paintings were characterized by intense feelings for man’s place in the grand natural scheme. Dixon’s work is a reflection, not only of his own inner nature and laborious craftsmanship, but of a people and land with which he became allied.
Dixon discovered a difference between the frontier and the West. The frontier, a historical concept concerned with certain American values, had all but disappeared, while the West itself seemed timeless, impervious to change, even spiritual. Ultimately he concluded that the West’s landscapes held the answers to his searching, arguing that American painting could best work its influence on the lives and thoughts of people when painters based their work upon native material and their native reaction to it. Maynard Dixon was a regionalist, long before the term arrived, with a confirmed belief in the vitality of regional America, particularly the West.
Part city-living bohemian, part traveler on desert landscapes, and sometimes a mystic touched by the reverberation of unknown presences, Maynard Dixon often left his San Francisco studio to roam the West’s plains, mesas, and deserts by foot, horseback, buckboard-and yes, ultimately, the dreaded automobile-drawing, painting, and expressing his creative personality in poems, essays, and letters, searching for a transcendent awareness of the region’s spirit.
These long, often solitary excursions into lands “where no one went,” were prompted by intense personal and philosophic examinations. “Otherness” and “remoteness” are basic to ideas about the American West, and Maynard Dixon possessed this concept of a region as qualitatively, not just quantitatively, different. In obtaining this insight, Dixon moved through several transitions in his artistic life-never easily. In the middle 1890s, he was an illustrator of mostly Western adventure stories for magazines, newspapers, and books; yet by 1912 he had moved back to San Francisco, concluding that he could no longer portray the West in “false” terms. By then he had become one of America’s foremost illustrators of western life, his art bound up with literary appeal for a departed and increasingly mythic Old West, in an era acknowledged as the Golden Age of illustration.
During that period, in January 1908, Dixon moved from San Francisco to New York seeking greater opportunities for his illustration work. There he established a studio at the Lincoln Arcade on Broadway, home to many artists and writers. These artists, writers, actors, Wild West showmen and others with an emotional and intellectual interest in the West and American art used Dixon’s place as an informal meeting location. Among them, one individual seemed unique. Sometime during 1908, Dixon met Charles M. Russell at the studio.
I first began to hear about “Charlie Russell, the cowboy artist” as far back as 1890, and from then on with fair regularity in almost any part of the West wherever pictures of western life might be mentioned. His fame was greatest, of course, among cattlemen and old-timers. He had a poor rating with artists and esthetes-though I believe no one, especially none who had attempted a study of the life he pictured, ever questioned his complete knowledge and truthfulness. For these we all respected him, whatever we thought of the artistic use he made of them. Natural fact and historical accuracy were his aims; imagination, interpretation,-a recreation of the subject matter-to him were non-sense. He said “I do not object to broad free painting-but I want to have sense,-I want to see what it is.” Also, “I talk with these esthetic fellows, and I don’t believe they know what they want. They don’t seem to know a damn thing but painting. They are just ‘artists.’ I’m not an ‘artist’-I’m an illustrator. I just try to tell the truth about what I know.” He made such statements always quietly and modestly, even humbly.
He never questioned another man’s right to paint as he pleased-but judged him and his works with the literal commonsense of hard experience. (Nothing like long days in the saddle over rough ground in any kind of weather to work the foolishness out of you.)
In appearance he was all an old timer: about five-feet ten inches-heavily boned, wide and solid shoulders, square body, slightly bowed legs, massive head; deliberate of movement, slow of smile. He was the only white man I have ever known whose bone structure of head and conformation of features were really those of an Indian. He had smallish gray eyes and a mane of coarse tawny hair; but if he had been brunette and swarthy you could not have told him from a Crow or a Blackfoot. Also like an Indian, his face was immobile. The gray eyes were kindly; yet looking in them you could realize that he had grown up in a country where ‘justifiable homicide” was an honored custom. He always wore a cowboy Stetson, the crown not dented, no vest, a northwest “breed sash” and plain cowboy boots; but there was no hint of show business or movie costuming in this;-it was his native garb.’
Dixon and Russell never saw each other often, nor corresponded regularly, yet an enduring respectful friendship emerged. In 1917, Dixon and Frank B. Hoffman, an artist Dixon met while in New York from 1908 to 1912, were invited by the Great Northern Railway to develop promotional paintings and posters at Glacier National Park and among the Blackfeet Indians, the railroad’s principal tourist attractions. One of the first things Dixon did was to write to Russell, asking if they could visit while in Montana. Russell, at his summer lodge on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, replied with distinctive syntax:
Aug. 21, 1917
Friend Dixon and Hoffman
I received your letter and will be glad to see you over here and when you come the robe will be spred and the pipe lit if you will drop me a line when you are coming I will meet you at the foot of the lake there are no Injuns here but there is lots of good picture country and I think we can have a good time My wife sends best whishes and will also be glad to see you I spoke to our son Jack about you fellers coming he sprung a long talk but I dont savy his language yet it might have been a kick he was putting in but come on over I think I can squar with him for you
During late August of 1917, Dixon and Hoffman visited Russell at his Bull Head Lodge, located along the shore of Lake McDonald, in the shadow of Glacier’s lofty peaks. From late June until the first snowfall, Russell often made the lodge a workshop and study. A buffalo skull, fastened onto planks and nailed to a nearby tree, served as a beacon to visitors arriving by boat. Two figures, a gnome and an Indian, flanked the steps leading to the porch. At one time, the cabin had only one large room; later bedrooms were added, along with a special studio room with a large northlight window where Russell would paint. In the early morning Russell would work at his easel in the studio, devoting afternoons and evenings to guests, either close personal friends from his cowboy days or artists like Maynard Dixon, met on his trips east. During the summer guests always stopped by and when they became numerous, Russell placed white cotton screens around the camp cots to afford some privacy. Each guest signed their name on the screen for that year and if an artist, added a little painting or drawing.
Dixon enjoyed his two-week stay at Bull Head Lodge, often talking with Russell into the early-morning hours, respecting him as an authentic westerner and for his knowledge of the West. There would be things Dixon was unsure about, costume details, for example, or things about the landscape, or matters of feel and mood that Russell helped him understand. There was something else too. Both Russell and Dixon knew the Old West was slipping away, and that their art would be important in remembering the West.
Harold Von Schmidt, a student and protege of Dixon, and later to become a noted illustrator, recalled that in late fall during the early 1920s, Dixon would go down to the San Francisco train station to pick up Russell and bring him to Dixon’s Montgomery Street studio. Russell, in the last years of his life before his death in 1926, migrated from Montana’s cold winters to Pasadena, returning to Montana in the spring. Dixon and Russell would spend all day and night talking about the West and things western, go from one restaurant to another, ending at an all-night coffee house, then back to the studio for more talking. Finally Dixon would put Russell on the morning train to Los Angeles. When Russell came to San Francisco in 1924, Dorothea Lange, Dixon’s second wife, who would achieve acclaim as a Depression-era photographer in the 1930s, took two photographs of him in the studio, one a profile of his great shaggy head, his right hand holding a cigarette. Lange remembered she was not a participant in the discussion between Dixon and Russell; she was just there, with her camera. She also recalled Dixon and Russell were in serious conversation, not trading anecdotes on western lore, or entertaining each other, which they both could do well, but engaged in intense dialogue.
That afternoon in Dixon’s studio left Lange with an indelible memory, “a quality not unlike other rare occasions, when I have been in the presence of old-type American Indians. There is a sort of echo, which remains and is unforgettable. ”
Von Schmidt and Edward Borein sometimes would join the talk sessions, particularly when the artists argued about modern art. Once, Dixon and Borein claimed modern artists could not draw or paint. Russell though, thought for a while and then surprising everyone said, “I don’t think so. When I was in New York I met a fellow that painted like you and I do. Then he got interested in something else. He decided to paint intersecting planes of light. He painted a long time that way … but by God he drew and painted just as good as we do.”•
During those first several years of the 1920s, Dixon had worked out painting techniques to express the West as he felt it should be seen. But to his dismay, he discovered his subject changing under the impact of popular culture. Inexpensive automobiles were destroying the isolation of even the most remote communities, emptying the stables and dousing old campfires. At first the motion pictures imitated the Old West, then the Old West began imitating the movies. That Maynard Dixon did not like what was coming is evident in his poem, “To An Old Timer.” Perhaps not surprisingly. he dedicated the poem to Charles M. Russell:
What news, old timer? True that line and fence
now subdivide the prairies and the hills-
a web of worries and machine-made ills
impeded your freedom without recompense;
that little people crowd and trade, and pass-
nor lift their eyes beyond the day that brings
their petty profit of the little things-
where once the west wind turned the prairie grass.
And yet I know, remote, a country where
God’s desert peaks, unmoved, outstare the sun:
and still in lonely unsought valleys run
the distant antelope; and flashing clear
stampeding mustangs from their dust-clouds dim
wheel and are gone across the broken range;
the hidden ranch house and the springs are strange;
and eagles perch upon the lava rim.
So somewhere faith believes, though sense denies,
that while these peaks are free, these heavens pure,
still something of their nature must endure
in men who meet the silence of these skies
that here these greater-hearted ones shall find,
where lesser men their lesser fortunes seek,
a mighty upland, clear from peak to peak-
the free unfenced republic of the mind.
Donald J. Hagerty has recently retired from the University of California at Davis where he was a teacher and administrator. He is the author of the comprehensive catalog Desert Dreams, the Art and Life of Maynard Dixon published in 1993 by Peregrine Smith Books. Hagerty studied and researched Maynard Dixon extensively, interviewing living relatives and friends of Dixon for much of his primary information.