Autry Museum of Western Heritage

Los Angeles, California


photo, ©1999 John Hazeltine


Will James: Cowboy Artist and Author


Smoky, a 1926 novel by Artist-Author Will James, won the

Newbery Medal for literature from the American Library Association and

has never been out of print. This oil by James of Smoky appeared on

the cover of a color illustrated edition of the book and is his most

recognized and famous painting. It has not been exhibited since 1929

and is one of 66 James artworks to be exhibited at the Autry Museum

of Western Heritage from October 3 through January 4, 1998.

Courtesy of A.P. Hays, Paradise Valley, Arizona.




Purchased from the artist in 1920, this painting remained in the

family of the original buyer until it was acquired by the Autry Museum last year.

Photograph by Susan Einstein, Los Angeles.


A special exhibition at the Autry Museum ofWestern Heritage explores the tragic
and fascinating life of artist and author Will James. On view in the Showcase Gallery from Oct. 3,
1997, through Jan. 4, 1998, Will James: Cowboy Artist and Author provides a rare opportunity
for visitors to appreciate the artistic skills of the author of such American classics as Smoky and
Lone Cowboy.
James' work, which includes 25 beloved novels, continues to appeal to a large audience who grew
up reading his books and to new generations of horse fanciers and cowboy fans. This intimate
presentation draws on an unmatched collection ofapproximately 75 paintings and drawings
featuring the private collection of A.P. Hays, Paradise Valley, Arizona, as well as first edition books,
numerous early drawings and a newly acquired oil painting from the museum's collection.
James' literary career began in the early 1920s, when the lanky cowboy from Nevada sent an
essay and illustrations to Scribner's New York offices. The easy-going, storytelling quality of his
writing, illustrated with his own drawings and paintings, made for a winning combination that was
quickly recognized by editor Maxwell Evarts Perkins, who worked with Thomas Wolfe, Emest
Hemingway and other literary giants. James' first novel, Smoky, won the Newbery Medal in 1927
as the most significant contribution in American literature that year for children, establishing his
place as an enduring writer of note. All 25 of his books are still in print.
Born in Canada as Ernest Dufaut, James left home to be a cowboy. Along with a new name, he
manufactured a new identity, claiming different parents and birth in Montana. Despite acclaim
and success in the literary world, his life was tragic. A brief prison term for rustling, a tumultuous
marriage and devotion to drink contributed to his untimely death in 1942 at age50.
James' best works were produced in the late 1920s and early 1930s at his first studio home on the
Washoe slopes near Carson City, Nevada and in his studio on his dream spread, the famous Rocking
R Ranch at Pryer, Montana. Both Smoky and Lone Cowboy were made into motion pictures. His art
graced the pages of periodicals and books and illustrated the works of many other authors.

Pencil drawings by Will James were precise and reflected his real-life experiences as a working

cowboy. This example helped to illustgrate the book Sand, published in 1929.

Courtesy of A. P. Hayes, Paradise Valley, Arizona.


Text and images courtesy of Autry Museum of Western Heritage

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.