The county courthouse in Missoula, Montana, is a great stop for the Lewis & Clark buff. Not only is it a lovely building with a cool dome, but it is home to a beautifully done series of murals painted by western artist Edgar Paxson between 1912 and 1914. Two of the murals depict Lewis and Clark, and the others show other memorable scenes of Montana pioneer life and history.
Paxson, a native New Yorker who began his career as a sign painter, was 25 years old when he moved to Montana in 1877, the year after Custer’s Last Stand. The study and depiction of Custer would become Paxson’s passion, but as he evolved from painting signs, theater backdrops, and saloon murals to the serious pursuit of Western art, he also tackled many other topics, including both action scenes and portraits of Indians, landscapes and animal studies (especially buffalo), and several renditions of the Corps of Discovery.
Paxson’s most famous Lewis & Clark painting is at the Montana State Capitol:
Think you’ve seen this painting? It’s been used for decades as the cover image for Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, the zillion-copy bestseller responsible for bringing the Lewis & Clark story to a modern audience. It’s been reproduced countless times in everything from textbooks to athletic shoe ads.
When Paxson was chosen to paint the murals, he had steadily climbed in the ranks of Western painters. He honed his craft with a prodigious output of historical paintings and Indian portraits, all the while undertaking in-depth research on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Paxson interviewed participants on both sides of the battle, took copious notes, and walked the ground of the Little Bighorn battlefield a number of times. The subject inspired his deepest passion as a painter; he had to wait for his talent to catch up with his dream. In 1899, after years of work, Paxson completed what is considered his masterpiece:
The Custer painting became a sensation. In those days before movies, an artist’s grand vision was the best way for an audience to get an idea of the sweep of historical events, and Paxson’s 6×9 canvas toured Eastern cities for an admission fee of 25 cents (about $6.00 in today’s money). It vaulted Paxson into the realm of top Montana artists, and the commissions followed that would preserve Paxson’s work for the ages, including six paintings for the Montana State Capitol and the eight murals for the Missoula courthouse.
Paxson painted Sacagawea several times, showing the young woman with her digging stick and her papoose on her back. In the second painting he also gives her Meriwether Lewis’s dog.
The Travelers’ Rest mural has much of the same appeal as the Three Forks painting, with grizzled explorers, Sacagawea, Charbonneau, York, and lots of Indians on hand. Paxson had the highest respect for American Indians. He painted Sitting Bull and Chief Joseph, and counted many Indians as friends. He always portrayed the Indians as dignified and spirited, even as he witnessed them being ground down by the injustices against them.
Not unlike his friend Charlie Russell, Paxson was a generous man who had no head for business. He gave away many of his paintings and sold many others for $5 or $10 apiece. Russell’s wife Nancy was a shrewd businesswoman who helped her husband gain international fame, but Paxson labored along in his Butte and Missoula studios, known mostly to locals and true devotees of Western art. However, his interesting and impressive public works can stand alongside Russell and Frederick Remington as seminal depictions both of the West and the Corps of Discovery.
E.S. Paxson, Frontier Artist (website and illustrated book by William Edgar Paxson, Jr., the artist’s grandson)
Video on Edgar S. Paxson and “Custer’s Last Stand,” from the Buffalo Bill Historical Society