Posted by Noah
Just look at that painting. Unbelievable movement, seamless blending of colors and a moment of impossible kinetic energy expertly captured. If the cowboy in “The Spill” – arguably the greatest work of art by one W.H. Dunton, as good and important an American illustrator as there’s ever been – survives this spectacular calamity, then it’s surely not going to be a pleasant recovery and certainly not ever a complete one. This painting, acquired as part of The Charles Martignette Estate – written about in this blog a few weeks ago – is going to highlight, in a big way, the July auction of Western and Texas art here at Heritage. I personally can’t wait just to go and stand in front of the thing.
What I love about this painting is myriad. I mentioned a few things above, but there’s so much more to read into it. Why exactly are the cowboy and his horse flipping end over end? Is he a greenhorn rider trying to ride a spirited horse? A Horse Whisperer whose luck has run out? Maybe he got drunk at the saloon in town and was careless going home, or maybe he’s running for his life from Indians or brigands. Whatever the case, when that horse comes over on him, unless he manages to extricate his legs in quick fashion, his back is going to be snapped like a twig. What will his poor Ma and Pa think when their little boy, from a good home on the East Coast who had all the best schooling and abandoned it all to pursue his dream of being a real cowboy, dies alone in the American desert with only rattlesnakes and scorpions as witnesses?
Dunton was more than an illustrator. At the risk of offending any art snobs out there, I’d go as far as to say that he was one of America’s great 20th Century painters. The fact that he made his name initially as an illustrator – and a very good one at that – during America’s Golden Age of Illustration in the early 20th Century did not stop his progress as an artist or his desire to paint authentic subject matter. This is more than evidenced by his bold move in 1914 to Taos, New Mexico. Think about it: He had a successful career drawing for the top magazines of the day, plenty of money to support his family, but he chucked it all to move out West and start painting native landscapes. As a result he lived in near-poverty for the remainder of his days and became a truly transcendent painter. He was a founding member of the famed Taos Society of Art, saw his paintings exhibited all over the nation and garnered wide acclaim – if not fortune – for his important work. Still, though, in his own words, he would have rather lived in a time where no means of “making a living” was necessary at all:
"There is one thing positive, had I lived in Merriweather Lewis's, Audubon's or even as late as Catlin or Francis Parkman's day, no life of mine would be thrown away painting pictures, when I could live the greater part of a year alone with my rifle and a few pack animals among the host of buffalo – the antelope, the great bands of elk…"
Fortunately for us, Dunton did paint, and he did leave behind a sizable body of work, foremost among which is “The Spill.” It’s classic American art at its best, relaying a scene of the great, rustic American West that was a direct slice of life, though certainly – ultimately – much larger.
This painting, rightly so, should command a couple hundred thousand dollars. Lord knows that it will bring much more than that 100 years from now. Personally, I wish I could afford it, and am glad I’m not the subject matter. Wiping out on a horse is bad enough – I was thrown by a horse and then bitten by it when I was a kid learning to ride, no kidding – let alone getting snapped like a pencil by its amazingly articulated and artfully presented full body weight.
Here’s a link to the entire Western and Texas art auction. Check out the Olin Travis in particular for a tasty modern perspective on Texas landscape painting. Once you start staring at this thing it’s hard to stop.
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