Indigenous people of the West have long fascinated outsiders, an intrigue stoked by the works of such artists as Charles M. Russell, Frederic Remington and Joseph Henry Sharp. These artists came from the East to roam the Great Plains and document the traditional lives of Native people as they were being forced onto reservations. The illustrious and often romanticized worlds they created became part of Montana’s expanding folklore.
One such work, “The Young Chief,” a 20×30” oil painting by Sharp that portrays an intimate exchange among an Apsáalooke (Crow) family, will be available at auction on July 15 in Reno, Nevada, during the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction. The painting, one of Sharp’s first open-air camp scenes, depicts the family preparing for a sweat lodge ceremony as the warm hue of morning hits the prairie. Grazing horses dot the horizon and tepees rise in the background, merging with a pink-tinted sky.
“The Young Chief” is valued between $300,000 and $500,000, according to the auction catalog.
That the painting is for sale is not unique — the art market is rich with paintings that have drastically appreciated as originals become scarce and “western” continues as a fashionable lifestyle trend.
What is unique is the story behind the painting, created by Sharp in 1905 and gifted to the Billings Chamber of Commerce in 1915 by Charles Bair, a close friend of the artist’s and a well-known businessman of the region.
Some area art experts worry that selling the painting is a mistake in a long line of Montana’s historic artwork being parceled off to the highest bidder. The chamber’s current leadership maintains the painting is rarely seen by the public and should be sold so the proceeds can be used for other purposes.
“The painting is a magnificent work of art, and we are hopeful that it will be purchased by an organization or individual who will be able to fully enjoy and appreciate the piece,” Billings Chamber of Commerce President John Brewer told Montana Free Press.
Brewer, when asked, did not disclose any other works the chamber intends to sell, but Warren Rollins’ “Indian Portrait,” a 38×28” oil painting valued between $15,000 to $25,000, will also be auctioned in July. According to the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction, billed as the nation’s largest auction of western art, the painting also is owned by the Billings Chamber of Commerce.
Gordon McConnell, assistant director of the Yellowstone Art Center in Billings (now the Yellowstone Art Museum) from 1982 to 1998, disagrees with the sale of Sharp’s work.
“My initial reaction is that [the decision to sell the painting] is disconnected from any social or cultural responsibility,” McConnell said. He recalls “The Young Chief” being exhibited during the 1998 inaugural exhibition of the Yellowstone Art Museum, which included a major addition to the former art center that was housed in the old Yellowstone County Jail.
At the time, the museum received a large gift from Virginia Snook, a Billings resident whose family collected art and entertained many artists and writers, including Russell, Sharp, Ernest Hemingway, Will James and Isabelle Johnson. Though the YAM was a contemporary art museum, “We saw it as a responsibility to accept Virginia Snook’s generous gift to preserve that for the people of Montana,” McConnell said. “We were trying to fill out the narrative of art history in Montana.”
The painting has been on extended loan to the museum since 1967, stored as a courtesy to the chamber, according to Laura Krapacher, YAM’s registrar.
Historian Thomas Minckler saw “The Young Chief” in the early 1980s and recalls being in awe.
“It was a signature Joseph Henry Sharp painting of a Crow encampment, very typical, though a very important piece of that period,” said Minckler, who is a Montana scholar and author of “Montana: A Paper Trail” and “In Poetic Silence: The Floral Paintings of Joseph Henry Sharp.”
In November 2022, Minckler was asked by Brewer to assess the value of the painting. Minckler did not conduct a formal appraisal, but estimated it could easily sell for $300,000, and up to as much as $800,000.
In an emailed response to MTFP, Brewer said the chamber board in December 2022 unanimously voted to contract with the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction and based its decision “purely on the merits of the sale,” noting that “the Chamber is on solid financial footing with healthy reserves.”
In May 2023, the Billings Chamber Foundation was created and will be operated for educational and charitable purposes, Brewer explained. “The corporation shall support the educational programs of the Billings Chamber of Commerce, as well as community placemaking initiatives.”
When asked, Brewer would not specifically say whether the proceeds of the sale will be used for the foundation. But in an email obtained by MTFP, Brewer told Minckler the proceeds will be gifted to the chamber foundation.
Brewer told MTFP that the board is considering holding the principal similar to an endowment, “which will allow the asset to provide value to the community for many years to come.” Some initiatives that Brewer foresees the chamber supporting include diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, workforce development and increasing tourism.
The sale hasn’t been publicized in Billings, but the art was displayed at the C.M. Russell Auction in Great Falls in August 2022 and in several national art publications to generate interest, Brewer said.
SHARP AMONG THE CROWS
Both Sharp and Russell came west in search of something mystical and ruggedly romantic, their brushes conjuring grand scenes: part folklore, part observation of Indigenous people who lived in connection with the land for thousands of years.
Born in Ohio in 1859, Sharp began painting at age 14. He attended the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati and then studied in Antwerp, Munich and Paris among the modernists and the impressionists. He brought their sweeping brush strokes and casual style back with him to America. His subjects ranged from florals to landscapes to portraits, but he is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Native Americans at the turn of the century. He painted with a familiarity gained from living on the Crow Reservation and frequenting the Blackfeet Reservation in the early 1900s. His impressionistic and intimate scenes of Native life and the tribes of the region were rich with detail and the nuances of everyday life.
“He was such a versatile painter,” Minckler said. “He was known for firelight scenes when the sun is just starting to set, illuminating the inside of the tepees. He painted figural scenes in the Southwest, and his Crow and Blackfoot camps are just masterfully painted.”
Sharp’s paintings contrasted with the works of his contemporaries, who often painted the clashing of Native people with western pioneers.
“Frederic Remington and, to a lesser degree, Charles Russell, especially in his early work, tended to portray the Indian as a malevolent force,” Peter Hassrick wrote in “The Charles M. Bair Family Collection,” published by the Yellowstone Art Museum in 2004. “They were pictured … as resisters of civilization, to be feared and revered for their bellicose traditions.”
When Sharp arrived at Crow Agency in 1902, he met Charles Bair, who leased land on the reservation to run sheep and cattle. Bair became Sharp’s largest customer in Montana, as described by Carolyn Reynolds Riebeth in her book “J.H. Sharp Among the Crow Indians 1902–1910.” Riebeth noted that Bair “would buy paintings for gifts and for himself. A fine one in the [Billings Chamber of Commerce] is long ago a gift from Bair.”
Riebeth was the daughter of Indian Agent Samuel Guilford Reynolds, and the family arrived the same year as Sharp to reside on the Crow Reservation. Bair, Sharp and Reynolds became close friends. Bair even gave Sharp a covered sheep wagon with a stove to use during his outings to paint in the winter, as Sharp was drawn to the winter landscapes of the plains.
“Bair was the patron, Sharp the creative force, and Reynolds the facilitator,” according to Hassrick.
In 1915, Bair gifted “The Young Chief” to the Billings Commercial Club (later renamed the Billings Chamber of Commerce) as a “thank you” for promoting a showing of Sharp’s works, according to Brewer.
Minckler recalled speaking to Alberta Bair, the daughter of Charles Bair, in the early 1980s about the painting. They were members of the “Yellowstone Corral of the Westerners,” a chapter of the international history group that gathered periodically at the Northern Hotel downtown. “She said her father was a great friend of Billings,” Minckler said. “At the time he gifted the painting, it was perhaps worth $400 or $500. That was a lot of money back in 1904. He wasn’t just gifting for fun.”
Elizabeth Guheen, executive director of the Charles M. Bair Family Museum in Martinsdale, did not return inquiries for comment for this story.
“The Young Chief” demonstrated a shift in Sharp’s subject matter, according to author Hassrick. “Such paintings came to be considered something of a corrective in the pictorial interpretation of the American Indian … Sharp, having lived peaceably for so long among the Pueblo in Taos and the Crow in Montana, explored another more accommodating dimension of Native life.”
Though Sharp shied away from painting scenes of conflict, he did paint the battlefield from Custer’s last stand. From the back window of his studio at Crow Agency, Riebeth wrote, he could see Custer Hill.
“Custer Battlefield,” a thickly layered, 24×36” oil painting depicting the Little Big Horn Valley blanked in snow with the battlefield in the distance, is owned by the Billings Public Library. It is one of six paintings by Sharp, dating back to the early 1900s, owned by the Billings library. Sharp donated the painting to the library in 1944 in memory of Reynolds. The painting was described as one of his few remaining Crow Reservation paintings in a letter from Riebeth, acting on Sharp’s behalf, to offer the artwork to what was then the Parmly Billings Library.
As city assets, the paintings belong to the people of Billings, local historian Joseph Lanning told MTFP. The collection also includes a watercolor by Russell, six hand-tinted prints by photographer L.A. Huffman, and Luther “Yellowstone” Kelly’s 1870s oiled-silk map.
Lanning, who oversees the library’s archives, described the library in the early 1900s as the place residents went for cultural exposure, which is why such artworks hung on its walls. Sharp, who held painting demonstrations at the library during his “old days,” Riebeth wrote, believed the library was “a logical place for a memorial to my father, and who I know was Mr. Sharp’s best friend in Montana and one of his best anywhere.”
Lanning utilizes the library’s collection of art for educational programming and to represent the myriad cultures in the region.
“It’s very important that I don’t use this art to just look back,” he said. “I want to know how I can use this art collection going forward, not just teaching new generations about it, but seeing them through a new lens and getting new voices and interpretations of them.”
Due to their value, the paintings are not hung at the library permanently, but rather stored in the Yellowstone Art Museum’s vault, Lanning said.
A LEGACY OF LOSS
Selling Sharp’s work is part of a larger story of loss that dates back at least to the 1950s, when Montanans lost one of the greatest collections of C.M. Russell’s works to Amon G. Carter, a wealthy Texan who used the art as the foundation of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.
Russell, who was born in 1864 in St. Louis, came to Montana at age 16 and never left, becoming internationally known as the “original cowboy artist.” After his death in 1926, his widow, Nancy Russell, sought to ensure her husband’s legacy in Montana and donated to the city of Great Falls his studio and its contents, which would become part of the C.M. Russell Museum.
Russell’s works were coveted during his lifetime and even more so after his death. A robust collection of paintings made their way to Billings in the 1940s after the death of one of Russell’s longtime friends, Malcom Mackay. His son, Bill, in the book “Montana’s Charlie Russell: Art in the Collection of the Montana Historical Society,” remembered his father’s love of Montana to be “deep and abiding. Living in Montana was a particular way of life, and it was easy to see why the paintings of Charles M. Russell immediately caught dad’s fancy.”
The Mackay collection expanded to the point where the family built a “Russell Room” in their New Jersey home to display the collection of paintings, drawings and bronze sculptures, according to Montana Historical Society archives. After Malcom passed away in 1932, his wife, Helen, approached the Northern Hotel in Billings about displaying the collection. The hotel was being rebuilt after a devastating fire and boasted of its state-of-the-art (and fireproof) new facility. When it opened in July 1942, Russell’s paintings were on display in the lobby and became a tourist attraction for the next decade.
The leaders of the Montana Historical Society in Helena also wanted to share Russell’s legacy. Director K. Ross Toole pushed to expand the society and establish art galleries and a museum, and in 1952 he formalized the acquisition of the Mackay Collection of Russell paintings and bronzes, spurred by the loss that same year of another great collection of Russell’s works obtained by Sid Willis, owner of the Mint saloon, which operated in downtown Great Falls through the 1960s. Having served him drinks and befriended the artist over the years, Willis collected a great deal of Russell’s work.
Willis sold his collection of nearly 100 original oil paintings, watercolors, pen and ink drawings, illustrated letters and clay models in 1945 to the Mint Corporation, an organization established by Maurice and Gretchen Egan of Billings and George and June Sterling of Great Falls, according to the publication “The Mint Collection and the Saloon Entrepreneurs” by Paul T. Devore. A clause in the sale required that if the collection were to be resold, it would first be offered to Montanans, and in 1948, it was. The Charles M. Russell Memorial Committee was formed to raise the $125,000 asking price, and when it failed to raise even half that amount, the collection was purchased by Amon Carter.
After the loss of the Willis collection, Helen Mackay decided it was time to offer the family’s collection to the state, and asked for $50,000 — a fraction of its worth. Toole went about fundraising, promoting the collection as the last chance to keep a large body of Russell’s work intact and in the state.
“We simply could never explain its loss to our children. We could never rationalize our apathy and selfishness,” Toole wrote in a society brochure to promote the purchase. “Are we awake enough to save this last and finest collection?” The effort succeeded, and the collection now makes up the Montana Historical Society’s Charles M. Russell room.
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