Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ralph DeCamp

Charlie Russell, Edgar S. Paxson, and Ralph DeCamp make up the great triumvirate of Montana’s best-loved frontier artists. All three contributed to the art in the Montana State Capitol and were great friends. Although DeCamp was also a fine photographer and portrait painter, he is best known for his landscapes. DeCamp spent his teen years in Moorehead, Minnesota, the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. He studied at the Pennsylvania School of Art and then, back at Moorehead, got a big break when he sketched a train accident he had witnessed. His drawings, as evidence in court, drew the attention of a high-ranking railroad official. The Northern Pacific hired DeCamp to join a group of artists painting and photographing Yellowstone National Park. This was a huge opportunity as train stations displayed original artwork and were Montana’s first art galleries. DeCamp fell in love with Montana’s landscape potential and soon moved to Helena. There, painting the Gates of the Mountains, he met Margaret Hilger, daughter of a prominent rancher. They married and were a good match. Margaret was a renowned violinist, and she accompanied her husband on his countryside excursions, practicing her violin as he painted.

DeCamp (left) and Charlie Russell circa 1910, Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 944-735
Charlie Russell said that DeCamp painted the wettest water he had ever seen, so wet you could hear it ripple. Consequently, he always had more buyers for his art than he had paintings. After Margaret died suddenly in 1934, DeCamp went to live in Chicago with his son, bought a car, and continued painting the countryside until his death in 1936. DeCamp’s work is rarely for sale because those who own his paintings cherish them.

Stormy Day, Ralph DeCamp. Montana Historical Society collection #1977.04.29

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