Collections Highlights: Will James Rides Again


The YAM’s current installation of its Will James collection showcases dozens of paintings and drawings from throughout James’ career, his parade saddle and chaps, and two portraits by Edward Curtis studio. The full-gallery exhibition opened on First Friday, July 5, 2019 in the Mildred Sandall Scott Galleries.

For almost a century, Will James (Ernest Dufault 1892-1942) has been celebrated for his illustrations and stories of horses, cowboys, and the romantic American West. His empathetic depictions of horses are timeless. 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.

Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault was born in rural Quebec in 1892. Two decades later, Will James was born, fully formed, from Dufault’s imagination. After working for a few years as a wrangler in Saskatchewan—where James gained expertise in livestock, the dialect of ranches and rodeos, and the inner life of horses—the “Montana-born” cowboy William Roderick James crossed the border into the United States

After a serious riding injury and 18 months in prison for cattle rustling, James began to weave the details of cowboy life into drawings and stories. 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. Like his friend and mentor Charles M. Russell, James both lived and invented the masculine stereotypes of Western art and film. James’ blending of authentic cowboy lore and myth continues to influence contemporary American art and culture. Although his cowboy identity was genuine, James always feared that his French Canadian origins would be exposed. He died in 1942 from complications of alcoholism.

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

This exhibition was made possible in part by Karen Ferguson and the Will James Society. Karen Ferguson has been a collections volunteer for ten years. Her concern and understanding of the conservation needs of the Will James collection (and other collections needs) prompted her to make a generous donation. Her support made it possible for the YAM to use proper conservation materials to re-mat and mount 24 drawings for the new installation. The YAM is committed to preserving hundreds of Will James’ artwork by removing acidic matting and mounting materials as funding allows. The YAM also appreciates the Will James Society’s continuing support for exhibitions, research, and conservation for the Will James Collection.

Will James, The Stampede, 1919, Graphite on Paper