Monday, June 23, 2014

Edgar S. Paxson

Beloved Montana artist Edgar S. Paxson was the son of Quaker parents. His father was a painter of theatrical scenery. Like his fellow artist Charlie Russell, Paxson came west looking for adventure. He arrived in Montana in 1877 and like Russell worked as a wrangler, cow punching, scouting, and hunting for his cattlemen bosses. Paxson’s life experiences on the range gave him subject matter, but he put his own twist on history. He knew and interviewed many of the characters he later depicted and carefully painted them as he wanted them to be, not always as they really were. For example, Paxson knew the great Salish chief Charlo. His painting of the Salish exodus from the Bitterroot Valley, The Salish, led by Chief Charlo, leaving their Bitterroot home for the Flathead Reservation, portrays finely dressed warriors brandishing rifles. In reality, the Salish were a poor and broken people forced out of their homeland.

E.S. Paxson, The Salish, led by Chief Charlo, leaving their Bitterroot home for the Flathead Reservation
Oil on linen, 1914, Missoula County Art Collection. Photographed by Chris Autio, 2000.
Paxson settled in Butte in 1880, painting signs and theatrical scenery to support his family. Paxson was entirely self-taught like Russell, but he lacked the marketing opportunities and exposure that that Russell gained from his wife Nancy’s determined salesmanship. The Spanish American War intervened with Paxson’s career, and he and his son Harry together volunteered for service. En route home, the ship encountered a typhoon, and a wave slammed Paxson against a spar causing serious internal injuries from which he never recovered. But despite his feeble health, he moved to Missoula and, driven by his art, worked until the day he died in 1919, leaving a wonderful legacy. His most famous work, Custer’s Last Stand, is in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. In Montana, Paxson’s murals grace the Montana State Capitol and the Missoula County Courthouse.

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