C. M. Russell Museum

Great Falls, MT



Will James Paintings and Drawings

April 4 - September 4, 2000


Will James (1892-1942) was a contemporary of Charlie Russell's and an accomplished artist as well as novelist. James captured an audience with his books and paintings as the authentic embodiment of the American cowboy. During his lifetime he wrote and illustrated twenty-few books, drawing upon his personal experiences and detailed knowledge of cowboy life. Starting as a child, Will James also showed a talent for art - drawing on everything from postcards and laundry cardboard to cigarette papers. As unique and spirited as his writing was, his impressive ability as an artist encouraged comparisons with other leading western artists, and has led to a recent revival in his work. Enjoy drawings and paintings by Will James at the C.M. Russell Museum on display from April to September, 2000.

The majority of the exhibit on Will James is on loan from the Virginia Snook Collection of the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana. Earl Snook, father to Virginia, was Will James' closest friend and benefactor. He amassed a unique collection of James materials while Will was still alive. In volume, scope and variety, the Snook collection is exceptional. Other pieces in the exhibit are from private collectors.

The C.M. Russell Museum's exhibit of paintings and drawings by Will James will showcase many drawings of cowboy life - from roping longhorns and stampeding horses to taming a bronc and everyday ranch life. The majority of the works in the exhibit are pencil and watercolor, and many were used as illustrations in his books.The preface of Will James' first book says, "I am a cowboy, and what's put down in these pages is not material that I've hunted up, it's what I've lived, seen, and went thru before I ever had any ideas that my writing and sketches would ever appear before the public." (left: Letter from Charles M. Russell to Will James, May 12, 1920, 1920, drawing; ink and watercolor on paper, 2 pages @ 10 x 8 inches each, Yellowstone Art Museum, Billings, Montana,1995.001-VS)

Will James was born Ernest Dufault in Quebec, Canada on June 6, 1892. At age fifteen, he become entranced with the wild West and dreamt of becoming a cowboy. He spent a few years in western Canada learning English and the cowboy trade before crossing into Montana around 1910. At that time, he also changed his name to William Roderick James. Eventually James claimed the Judith Basin in Montana, and sometime even Billings, as his birthplace. He then spent time in Montana, Idaho, and Nevada taming horses and doing other ranch work. In 1914 he was arrested for cattle rustling and spent a little more than a year in the Nevada State Prison at Carson City. In prison, James passed the long months making drawings and this is when he first began to consider a career in art.

The next decisive turn in his life came in 1919 when a bucking horse dumped him head first into a railroad track and left him with a severe concussion. This accident led him to the realization that he had passed his prime as a cowboy. A fellow patient in the hospital recognized his talent for drawing and gave him a letter of introduction to Sunset, a popular illustrated magazine published in the San Francisco bay area.

By September of 1919, Will James had moved to San Francisco and enrolled in night art classes. He was befriended by renowned painter and illustrator Maynard Dixon, who encouraged his career choice. Will James sold a series of drawings to Sunset, with the first published in 1920.

In 1920, Will James married Alice Conradt. While continuing as an illustrator, but making a living as a ranch hand, they lived in Arizona and New Mexico. In the fall of 1922, Alice encouraged him to develop his natural storytelling ability. In just one week, James wrote and illustrated an article entitled "Bucking Horses and Bucking-Horse Riders." He submitted the article and twelve drawings to Scribner's, a leading New York publication. The story was published in March 1923 and was so well received that James was asked to become a regular contributor. He published and illustrated six more stories within the next twelve months. These seven stories, along with one published in the Saturday Evening Post, comprised Will James first book entitled Cowboys North and South (Scribner's, 1924). A second anthology, The Drifting Cowboy, was published by Scribner's in 1925.

Will James wrote his tales around his expert knowledge of horses, ranch life, and the skills and character of cowboys. His language was colorful and his detail about the cowboy way of life unmistakably authentic. As spirited as his writing was, James was also famous for his ability as an illustrator, especially his ability to draw the horse.

In 1926, Will James put a down payment on several thousand acres in the Pryor Mountains, 45 miles south of Billings, Montana. He and Alice moved to Montana the next year. James went into the ranching business, calling his ranch the Rocking R. He used his income from writing and illustrating (publishing 23 books between 1924 and 1942) to subsidize an open range cattle operation, as well as herds of longhorns and horses. At the same time, he followed the rodeo circuit, had some of his books made into films, and spent more and more time in Hollywood.

In 1934, Will James returned to Canada one last time and attempted burn everything that linked him to Ernest Dufault. His career in publishing and as an artist was based on the claim that he was a native-born cowboy. He didn't want the public, his publisher, his wife or his friends to know that he was really Ernest Dufault from Quebec.

In 1935, Alice left Will James after 15 years of marriage. His years of excessive drinking ruined his marriage - as well as his health. He left the Rocking R and eventually lived in the cellar of the Snook family. On September 3, 1942, while living in Hollywood, Will James died from alcoholic complications.


Also see our article Will James: Cowboy Artist and Author (1997)

Read more about the C. M. Russell Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 12/27/10

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