Collections Highlights: Will James Rides Again

July 6, 2019 - September 6, 2020

For almost a century, Will James (1892-1942) has been celebrated for his drawings, paintings, and stories of horses, cowboys, and the romantic American West. This exhibition of the YAM’s Will James collection showcases dozens of paintings and drawings, the artist’s parade saddle and chaps, photographs, and correspondence between James and his friend, Charlie Russell. The full-gallery exhibition opened in July, 2019 in the Mildred Sandall Scott Galleries. 

Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault was born in rural Quebec in 1892. The “Montana cowboy” William Roderick James was born from Dufault’s imagination two decades later. After working as a wrangler in Saskatchewan—where James gained expertise in livestock, the dialect of ranches and rodeos, and the inner life of horses—he crossed the border into the United States. He continued chasing his cowboy dreams. 

James arrived in Nevada in 1914. After a riding injury and the enforced solitude of prison time for cattle rustling, James began weaving the details of cowboy life into drawings and stories. He experienced great success throughout the 1920s. Scribner’s Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and Sunset magazines published dozens of his short stories and illustrations. His first novel, Smoky the Cowhorse was so successful that he purchased the Rocking R Ranch near Pryor, Montana, turning his dreams into reality.

James wrote and illustrated 23 books about the mythic West, including a largely fictional autobiography. Although his cowboy identity was genuine, James always feared that his French Canadian origins would be exposed. Like his friend and mentor Charles M. Russell, James both lived and invented the masculine stereotypes of Western art and film.

His depictions of horses are unmatched. He paints as if he feels their musculature from the inside, sensing their fear, curiosity, power, vulnerability, and trust. Although he sometimes struggled to depict the human form, his horses are always believable and expressive, exploding with energy and emotion. James’ blending of authentic cowboy lore and myth continues to influence contemporary American art and culture. 

The YAM houses the largest collection of Will James’ paintings, drawings, and archival materials. Virginia Snook donated the bulk of the collection to the YAM during the 1990s; the remainder passed to the Museum upon her death in 2000. 

Exhibition and Collection Sponsors

The YAM is committed to preserving and providing public access to the Will James collection. We are researching, cataloging, removing acidic matting and mounting materials, re-housing the collection, and improving online access as funding allows. The YAM appreciates contributions  from the Susan Scott Heyneman Foundation, Ted Waddell & Lynn Campion, Karen Ferguson, The Montana History Foundation, and the Will James Society. 

Will James, The Stampede, 1919, Graphite on Paper