Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on June 13, 2008 with permission of the Rockwell Museum of Western Art and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Rockwell Museum of Western Art directly at at 111 Cedar St., Corning, NY, 14830-2632 or through either this phone number or website:
Edward Borein, The Artist's Life and Work
by Robyn G. Peterson
John Edward Borein (1872 - 1945) was the oldest of five children of the deputy sheriff of San Leandro, a town along one of the California cattle trails. Shortly after Edward's birth, the family moved to nearby Oakland, a major center in the cattle industry. Borein's artistic inclinations became evident almost immediately; he was sketching at the tender age of five, before most children can write. The subjects available to him during his childhood -- cowboys, Hispanic vaqueros, longhorn cattle, horses -- determined his lifelong interests. Perhaps contrary to what one might expect in the rough environment of a cattle town, Borein was encouraged by his family to pursue art studies. His formal education at the San Francisco Art Association Art School, however, lasted just one month before he decided to give it up to become a cowboy.
Beginning in 1893, Borein worked ranches up and down the California coast. He became a proficient roper and rider, and seemed to have no regrets about choosing such a harsh life. He also developed skills in saddlemaking and lasso-braiding, which came as no surprise to those who were familiar with the breadth of his creative talents. He continued to sketch and found ample reinforcement in his itinerant new life for his childhood experiences with cowboy and ranch life subjects. Trips to Mexico provided him with still more variations on his theme and planted the seed for his interest in Hispanic subjects.
One of the earliest appearances of his work in print was in The Land of Sunshine magazine in August, 1896, work that he had submitted only after strong encouragement from his impressed cowhand acquaintances. His work would appear in this magazine often, and his friendship with the magazine's founder, Charles Fletcher Lummis, would last until the latter's death.
It was also during the 1890s that Borein began to try his hand at watercolor, a medium that he found somewhat discouraging. The painterly potential of the medium eluded him at first, but he persisted until his very last years when he finally achieved notable success with it. Although Borein tried his hand at oil painting, as well as the traditional illustrators' medium of pen-and-ink, he never excelled as a painter in the way that he did as a draftsman and printmaker. He virtually gave up oil painting after comparing his work unfavorably with C. M. Russell's, feeling he would never improve enough to match Russell's skill in that medium.
The years around the turn of the twentieth century brought many changes in the ranching life of coastal California. The fencing of the remaining open ranges, the gradual containment of Native Americans on reservations, the replacement of the longhorn by less aesthetically inspiring breeds of cattle, and the diminishing importance of the Spanish mission influence were changes that began to take the luster out of California ranch life for Borein. By 1900 he had returned to his childhood home in Oakland and established on artist's studio in his parents' house. A few more trips and a rented studio later, Borein gave up once and for all the unsettled life of a professional cowboy. This was in 1904, when he began to work in earnest as an illustrator for bay area newspapers and magazines, including Sunset Magazine. He also worked as a sign painter to help pay the bills. The speed with which artists had to prepare work for newspapers and the monochrome, linear quality of illustrations at that time influenced Borein significantly in his later work.
On the recommendation of friends, Borein moved to New York in 1907 to immerse himself in the fast-paced illustrators' world. He did this with on open mind and consequently learned much from his colleagues that benefited his art. Though thought of primarily as a Western (specifically a Californian) artist, Borein actually spent twelve of the most productive and rewarding years of his career in the East. If Borein can be described as self-taught, it was during his New York years that he "studied" most diligently.
Borein's familiarity with the perennially popular Western subjects kept him busy professionally, and his personable nature won him many friends. His tiny Manhattan studio, cluttered with Western memorabilia, became a mecca for artists and other displaced Westerners. Perhaps the most significant development during the New York years was Borein's brief formal training at the Art Students' League in the medium of etching. His mastery of this technique would ultimately set his life's work apart from his peers in American Western art. It was also in New York, in 1915 and 1917, that Borein had very successful one-man exhibitions that gave his career a noteworthy boost.
Borein took to the medium of etching as few Western artists have, no doubt attracted to it in part because of its potential to provide a steady income from print sales. It must have seemed like the logical step from his experience in pen-and-ink drawing. Nearly 400 different etchings by Borein are now documented, though precise numbers will probably never be known. Borein did not routinely sign or number his etchings, and surviving examples exhibit a variety of signatures and penciled remarques. His mastery of this medium reveals a concern for strong design and rhythmic, eye-catching compositions consistent with his training as an illustrator. Many prints display a near-abstract sense of patterning in compositions in which the line quality varies for aesthetic rather than descriptive purposes. Although Borein did produce the occasional aquatint and made rewarding use of the drypoint needle, he was not one to deviate far from the tried and true methods of basic etching. Instead of technical experimentation and bewildering variety, he preferred to work within the spectrum of linear "color" available to the traditional etcher. Adobe, fur, rock, leather, the leaves of a tree, a red tile roof -- all are suggested by a surprising economy of means. He recognized the essentially linear and monochromatic nature of the medium. He was also able to transfer the freshness and spontaneity of execution characteristic of pen-and-ink drawing to many of his etchings -- quite remarkable given the fact that etchings demand by nature a more deliberate approach.
Borein maintained friendships with many Western artists, including C. M. Russell, Maynard Dixon, Olaf Seltzer, and Jimmy Swinnerton, as well as a wide circle of New York illustrators. Borein's art benefited from his close contact with Russell and Dixon in particular. He also had long-standing friendships with other celebrities, including Jack London, Teddy Roosevelt, Annie Oakley, "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Will Rogers, and many people involved in the early Western film industry. His ties to the West were thus nourished, and, after several short trips back, he returned to California permanently in 1919. California had been his home from birth, and though he studied in New York in his thirties and was well traveled within the Southwestern United States and Mexico, it is to California that the bulk of his work relates. Borein's fascination with the Spanish Colonial missions that pepper California forms a chapter in his career that distinguishes him -- if nothing else had done -- from other American Western artists.
Borein married for the first time in 1921, at the age of 48, and moved with his new wife Lucille to Santa Barbara. He remained there for the rest of his life as a prolific and successful independent artist, managing several studios, teaching at the local art school, and producing vast quantities of etchings, drawings, and watercolors. His documented watercolors alone number over 1,000. Particularly in the 1930s, Borein produced watercolors with sparkling, vivid colors and a mastery of the tonal qualities of the medium. After his earlier, less successful forays into the medium, this was a triumph for him.
In all of his work, Borein's concern was to convey a flavor of authenticity without pretension, factual fussiness, or complex aesthetic effects. He conjured his subjects from his imagination, but they were based in the concrete facts of the life he lived and observed. He interpreted rather than copied his world, and never allowed his concern for accurate detail to overwhelm the drama and impact of a composition. He used the camera (including the motion-picture camera) as an aide-mémoire, but never as an indispensible tool.
Borein's sense of commitment was essentially more documentary than aesthetic, his goal being to capture a way of life as he knew it, and not to romanticize or sentimentalize. Yet, in documenting the life of the vaquero or the appearance of the California missions, he did not merely catalog a dry assortment of facts. He invested his images with his own very personal affection for the entire atmosphere, both material and immaterial, of the West and Southwest. Consistent with these aims, he depicted Native Americans not with minute ethnographic accuracy, but to convey a sense of "Indianness," as conceived of by the Anglo-American viewer to whom most of his published work was directed. Nevertheless, factual accuracy in the material details he chose to depict was deeply important to him. Many of his contemporaries, as well as present-day observers of his work, find most compelling his devotion to getting the details right.
Borein developed a readily identifiable personal style, which sets his work apart from that of the many artists who devoted themselves to similar subject matter. His style actually seems to communicate the sun-drenched aridity of the desert and the open range, the largeness of the landscape, and the volatile spark that animates the inhabitants. Warm colors predominate in his watercolors, and compositions lacking the high noon clarity of broad daylight are rare in any of his favored media.
It is in his sensitivity to horses and longhorn cattle, to their moods and actions, that Borein excelled. His empathy for animals is evident in the greater skill with which he depicted them in comparison to their human companions. With his sure understanding of animal anatomy in motion, Borein infused life into the simplest of pen-and-ink sketches. Skilled in the use of a few expressive strokes of the pen, he understood when less is more. Critics of his day repeatedly made observations about Borein's sincerity, lack of pretension, childlike simplicity, and so forth -- all of which might lead one to imagine that his work has a folksy, primitive, or naïve flavor. One searches in vain, however, for such features and instead finds solid technical skills, a penetrating grasp of figures in violent motion, and a well developed, if instinctual rather than learned, sense of design.
Like his friend C. M. Russell, Borein could combine the vast and the intimate, and he was at his best in small scale works. Borein never tired of a fairly limited range of subject matter, and found within it a great variety of visual effects. To contemplate the many moods of a longhorn steer in several dozen of Borein's deft pen-and-inks is to see intriguing and expressive variety that the viewer would never have seen had it not been brought forth by Borein. The diversity of treatments of the same basic motifs is testimony to Borein's ongoing thought processes in which horses, riders, sagebrush, or longhorns are manipulated to attain different aesthetic goals. He recognized how repetition of certain elements can produce a pleasing visual cadence; further, he knew how to exploit this design principle while steering clear of monotony.
Borein in the East at the Rockwell Museum
The Rockwell Museum's collection of works by Edward Borein began to take shape in the 1960s. It came naturally for Robert F. Rockwell, Jr., and his wife Hertha, founding donors of the Museum, to include Borein in their growing collection of American Western art. Bob explains that he began to collect Borein's works less because of Borein's importance among Western artists and more because he simply liked the work. He was drawn to Borein's pen-and-inks, etchings, and watercolors because of their accuracy and the virtuoso display of skill in drawing, particularly figures in action.
The bulk of the Boreins came to the Rockwell collection through the expert on Borein's life and work Harold G. Davidson. Davidson, whose published works are the cornerstone of the public's knowledge of this artist, handled Borein's estate and was responsible for bringing about ninety percent of the present collection to Bob's attention. It was through J. N. Bartfield Galleries, however, that Bob acquired the Stampede posters, which are a highlight of the collection. Bob relates that the noted Russell specialist Fred Renner, who was normally quite critical of artists, was full of praise for Borein's work and helped him to acquire several pen-and-inks. The Museum has also been fortunate to receive several works by donation.
The Rockwells are proud to have been acquainted with a number of people who knew Borein personally, including Ruth Koerner Oliver, daughter of the illustrator W. H. D. Koerner. From these individuals the Rockwells have learned many anecdotes about Borein, usually having to do with his habit of sketching wherever he went and tossing the results aside for his eager friends and acquaintances to salvage.
Bob Rockwell is modest about the Boreins he has assembled, deferring to others in California who have larger and older collections. The Rockwell Museum's Boreins, though, were individually hand-picked and represent the strongest collection in the East where the artist spent so many productive years.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Checklist of the Exhibition
About the author
Robyn G. Peterson served as chief curator for the Rockwell Museum in Corning, New York, which specializes in the art of the American West, and as senior director of exhibitions and programs at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. She is currently executive director of the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana.
Resource Library editor's note
The above exhibition pamphlet essay was reprinted in Resource Library on June 13, 2008, with permission of the Rockwell Museum of Western Art, which was granted to TFAO in April 2008, and the author, which was granted to TFAO on February 27, 2008. Ms. Peterson's essay pertains to Edward Borein: The Artist's Life and Work, which was on view at the Rockwell Museum May 22 - August 17, 1997, before embarking on a tour of the western United States. A condensation of this essay was published in the July - August 1997 issue of American Art Review.
Resource Library wishes to
extend appreciation to Dan Hoffman of the Rockwell Museum and Shana Herb
Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above
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