Category Archives: From the Vault

Texas Post Office Murals

Sunday marked SRM artist Peter Hurd’s birthday.

During the Great Depression era, like many of his peers, Hurd joined the New Deal art projects to execute several post office murals in locations such as Dallas and Big Spring, Texas and Alamogordo, New Mexico, his native state. In Texas alone, the federal government commissioned 106 artworks for 69 post offices and federal buildings. Several of these pieces are now lost. As a scholar and admirer of American and Texas art of the 1930s, I have made it my personal mission to visit and document the remaining.

Peter Hurd, O Pioneers, 1938, Big Spring, Texas, Photo Courtesy of Leslie Thompson

Peter Hurd, O Pioneers, 1938, Big Spring, Texas, Photo Courtesy of Leslie Thompson

One of the Texas post office murals I have visited is Peter Hurd’s O Pioneers, which he painted in 1938 for Big Spring. The title is stems from a poem by Walt Whitman, a line of which is modified and inscribed on the mural:

 O Pioneers                                                                                                                          Democracy rests finally upon us                                                                                                  And our visions sweep through eternity

The painting depicts a domestic scene of pioneer life on the West Texas prairie. The Section of Fine Arts liked to project images of stability with its frontier subjects and encouraged Hurd to add details that would communicate such, like fat chickens and clothes hanging on the line to dry. While the clothesline doesn’t appear in this composition, Hurd did include the plump poultry, reinforcing another message endorsed by the federal officials: hard work leads to prosperity. In addition, Hurd attended to local details, incorporating Big Spring’s identify mesa, Signal Mountain, in the background.

Joe De Yong, Off to Northern Markets, 1939, Gatesville, Texas, Photo Courtesy of Leslie Thompson

Joe De Yong, Off to Northern Markets, 1939, Gatesville, Texas, Photo Courtesy of Leslie Thompson

To our museum visitors and Charles Russell followers, another familiar name found among the Texas post office murals is the cowboy artist’s only protégé, Joe De Yong. In 1939, De Yong painted Off to Northern Markets, for the Gatesville post office. Although a California artist, De Yong grew up among Texas and Oklahoma cowboys, providing him with some knowledge of cattle drives. (Fun fact: De Yong worked on this Gatesville mural while serving as technical advisor and costume designer for the Cecil B. De Mille movie Union Pacific.)

Campin’ Buddies

“In the city men shake hands and call each other friends but it’s the lonesome places that ties their harts together and harts do not forget.”

– Charles M. Russell to Santa Fe [Tom Conway], March 24, 1917

Last week we welcomed back home one of our own – Charles Russell’s Man’s Weapons Are Useless When Nature Goes Armed. Originally hung in Sid Richardson’s dining room at his San Jose Island home, this painting is a favorite among our visitors and had been out on loan with the traveling exhibition, Harmless Hunter: The Wildlife Work of Charles M. Russell, which was organized by the National Museum of Wildlife Art and the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of the Art of the American West, University of Oklahoma.

Charles Russell, Man's Weapons Are Useless When Nature Goes Armed, 1916, Oil on canvas, 30 inches x 48 1/8 inches

Charles Russell, Man’s Weapons Are Useless When Nature Goes Armed, 1916, Oil on canvas, 30 inches x 48 1/8 inches

rehanging collage 2

After completing Man’s Weapons…, Russell gifted the painting to his good friend, Howard Eaton, a pioneer dude rancher. Originally from Pittsburgh, Eaton had settled in North Dakota in 1882 and then relocated permanently on the eastern side of the Big Horn Mountains once his dude wrangling business gained a popular reputation. In fact, the Eaton dude ranch is still open today on Wolf Creek and operated by the fourth and fifth generations of Eatons.

The ranch sits near some national historic sites and parks. Howard Eaton had expanded his operation to include trail rides through the nearby Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks and to the Southwest along the Grand Canyon. Russell accompanied Eaton on several trail rides, including a camping trip through Glacier in 1915 and 1916.

Russell (third from left) modeling for (from left) Howard Eaton, artist Joe Scheuerle, and an unidentified man in Glacier in 1915, AJ Baker, photographer, MHS photograph archives, Helena, Pac 99-52.MI, Courtesy of Montana’s Charlie Russell: Art in the Collection of the Montana Historical Society

Russell (third from left) modeling for (from left) Howard Eaton, artist Joe Scheuerle, and an unidentified man in Glacier in 1915, AJ Baker, photographer, MHS photograph archives, Helena, Pac 99-52.MI, Courtesy of Montana’s Charlie Russell: Art in the Collection of the Montana Historical Society

The artist and his wife Nancy joined an Eaton party on a particularly memorable excursion through Navajo country and the Grand Canyon in Fall 1916 and kept a photo album of the trip, which shows Charlie relaxed and happy. The couple had been on an excursion to the Southwest before, and were both completely enchanted by Arizona. Nancy later recounted to a friend, “This trip has been a trip of memories. Chas. just loved it all and had such a good time every day then around the camp fires at night they always had the big talk.”

The Eaton party on Bright Angel Trail, Howard Eaton in the lead in vest and tie, Photograph by Almeron J. Baker, Helen E. and Homer E. Britzman Collection.  TU2009.39.7650.81/D.10.845. Gilcrease Museum Archives.  University of Tulsa.

The Eaton party on Bright Angel Trail, Howard Eaton in the lead in vest and tie, Photograph by Almeron J. Baker, Helen E. and Homer E. Britzman Collection. TU2009.39.7650.81/D.10.845. Gilcrease Museum Archives. University of Tulsa.

Nancy and Charlie Russell at chow time, Photograph by Almeron J. Baker, Helen E. and Homer E. Britzman Collection.  TU2009.39.7650.20/D.10.784. Gilcrease Museum Archives.  University of Tulsa.

Nancy and Charlie Russell at chow time, Photograph by Almeron J. Baker, Helen E. and Homer E. Britzman Collection. TU2009.39.7650.20/D.10.784. Gilcrease Museum Archives. University of Tulsa.

Catlin as Showman

As mentioned previously, George Catlin went on several summer excursions West in the early 1830s to record the customs and characters of American Indian tribes he encountered. After 1837, Catlin the artist turned into Catlin the showman, touring the East Coast and Europe with his collection of paintings, costumes, weapons, and household artifacts. He called it his “Indian Gallery” or “Gallery Unique.” In doing so, Catlin inaugurated the elements of what was to become known as Wild West Shows.

Unknown artist, The World's Greatest Amusement Institution Tompkin's Real Wild West Frontier Exhibition and European Circus, ca. 1911, Lithograph, Courtesy of Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

Unknown artist, The World’s Greatest Amusement Institution Tompkin’s Real Wild West Frontier Exhibition and European Circus, ca. 1911, Lithograph, Courtesy of Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

Unknown artist, Buffalo Ranch Real Wild West: Cowboys, Cowgirls, Indians, and Mexicans, ca. 1890-1910, Chromolithograph, Courtesy of Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

Unknown artist, Buffalo Ranch Real Wild West: Cowboys, Cowgirls, Indians, and Mexicans, ca. 1890-1910, Chromolithograph, Courtesy of Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

The Wild West Show as a form of entertainment did not become a major cultural phenomenon until the late 19th century, when Americans and Europeans became intrigued with the rapidly disappearing Plains frontier. All Wild West Showmen shared a goal – to create popular entertainments that provide spectators an opportunity to witness and appreciate replications of life on the Great Plains. Audiences of these shows typically experienced the portrayal of a simple, romantic world in which heroic people on horseback enjoyed untrammeled freedom, quickly eliminated evil, and ensured the success of the “American” way.

Erwin E. Smith, Part of the Wild West Show of Gordon W. Lillie "Pawnee Bill," famous showman who was touring the Eastern states at the time Erwin E. Smith, the photographer, was attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Photographed against a painted backdrop. Boston, Massachusetts., 1908, Nitrate negative, Courtesy of Erwin E. Smith Collection of the Library of Congress on Deposit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, © Erwin E. Smith Foundation

Erwin E. Smith, Part of the Wild West Show of Gordon W. Lillie “Pawnee Bill,” famous showman who was touring the Eastern states at the time Erwin E. Smith, the photographer, was attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Photographed against a painted backdrop. Boston, Massachusetts., 1908, Nitrate negative, Courtesy of Erwin E. Smith Collection of the Library of Congress on Deposit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, © Erwin E. Smith Foundation

Erwin E. Smith, Performers with stage coach in Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show., 1908, Gelatin dry plate negative, Courtesy of Erwin E. Smith Collection of the Library of Congress on Deposit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, © Erwin E. Smith Foundation

Erwin E. Smith, Performers with stage coach in Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show., 1908, Gelatin dry plate negative, Courtesy of Erwin E. Smith Collection of the Library of Congress on Deposit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, © Erwin E. Smith Foundation

Catlin pioneered much of the Wild West Show tradition, including conveying the look and feel of the prairies, its people, animals that roamed there, the joy of the hunt and chase, and colorful aspects of the frontier. The artist had witnessed the end of the Plains Indian culture – one built around family, ceremonial life, horsemanship, buffalo hunting, warfare and other pursuits free from outside influences. He believed that others would only know of the “vanishing” American Indian cultures through the visual record he had preserved, compelling him to reproduce and interpret the Plains Indian culture for the public and make a living in the process. Catlin conveyed his ideas through the reigning media of the day – paintings, museum-like collections, books, and lectures – and traveled his collection around the world.

Broadside for Catlin exhibit in Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, England, ca.1844, Courtesy Toronto Public Library, Gift of the Metcalf Family in Honour of Robert F. Reid

Broadside for Catlin exhibit in Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, England, ca.1844, Courtesy Toronto Public Library, Gift of the Metcalf Family in Honour of Robert F. Reid

George Catlin | Nine Ojibbeway Indians in London | 1861 - 1869 | Oil on card mounted on paperboard

George Catlin | Nine Ojibbeway Indians in London | 1861 – 1869 | Oil on card mounted on paperboard

George Catlin's Indian Gallery, The Grand Salon, Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Photo by Il Primo Uomo on Flickr

George Catlin’s Indian Gallery, The Grand Salon, Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Photo by Il Primo Uomo on Flickr

Producing his enterprise was no simple – or inexpensive – task. Catlin had to hire many helpers. His collection of art and artifacts required proper packing and shipping. In addition to the hundreds of paintings, there were several thousand artifacts: tobacco pipes and domestic objects; weapons of war, the tomahawks, scalping knives, and clubs; and two live grizzly bears, which proved too troublesome for the European portion of his traveling exhibit. With a limited supply of affordable and fashionable exhibition space, Catlin often settled on salons at law buildings, old chapels, old theaters, and public buildings. His paintings and artifacts crowded the walls, displayed in what is referred to as “salon style,” in which images are stacked on top of each other from floor to ceiling. The exhibition’s festivities began promptly at 7:30pm. Electricity not yet available, lighting in the evening hours was provided by candles or whale oil lamps. Can you imagine?!

**Information for this post was collected by SRM research volunteer Shelle McMillen. Thank you, Shelle!**