A private collection of works by America's sporting and wildlife artist highlights Philip R. Goodwin's long career.
You’ve seen his work on ammunition posters and calendars, in fishing catalogs and books such as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and Theodore Roosevelt’s African Game Trails. Philip R. Goodwin is “the best known artist in North America that no one knows the name of ” according to Michael Grauer, curator of art and Western heritage at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas. “He literally reached more people through his art than any other artist in U.S. history — mainly because of the ephemera on which his work was reproduced.”
In 1881, long before the commercialization and mass reproduction of his outdoor-driven art, Goodwin was born in Norwich, Connecticut. After kick-starting his career by publishing an illustrated story in Collier’s at age 11, Goodwin went on to study at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, The Art Students League of New York, and the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia.
While formal education had a great deal of influence on Goodwin’s art, he also took notes from a variety of other sources, not least of which were the American West itself and Westerners bonded by their shared heritage and geography.
“When Charlie Russell first visits New York in 1904, many of the displaced Westerners or those who made their living there gathered together to ‘palaver’ with him in the studios of John Marchand and Will Crawford, two artists known for their Western illustrations,” Grauer says. “Goodwin was there, along with Edward Borein, Maynard Dixon, and probably W. Herbert Dunton. These artists became lifelong ‘pards.’ Goodwin visited Russell in Montana twice, and most scholars believe Goodwin helped Russell improve his color palette, while the older Russell helped Goodwin better integrate his animal subjects into the landscape in his paintings.”
Goodwin would eventually develop his signature confrontational style as well as formulas that dozens of Western artists followed, including the so-called predicament picture. “He’ll put the animal and the outdoorsman right up against the picture plane,” Grauer says. “Whether it’s a grizzly bear and a lumberman meeting each other on a trail, Goodwin’s signature style is not only confrontation with the viewer but on the canvas. People love it because they want to know the rest of the story.”
To better understand these interactions and exchanges between man and wild later in his career, Grauer says, Goodwin would often trade in ammunition for a sketchpad and go on a “dry hunt.” In much the same way an actor researches a role, the artist would spend time observing animal subjects and their movement rather than shooting and posing them.
“Plenty of Western artists went out West to play cowboy, but Goodwin didn’t do that,” Grauer says. “He was a reluctant hunter. He was out there to absorb and experience. He needed to know what he was painting about.”
In the end Goodwin’s work is about wonder — an emotion difficult to capture in art without firsthand experience in life. “He captures the wonder of the American West landscapes and the critters that live in the woods, on the plains, and in the waters,” Grauer says. “His universal appeal is to those who work indoors but ache to be outside. Goodwin’s work says, ‘Get outside. Go hiking. Get on horseback. Breathe. Smell. Taste. Listen. Feel. Live.’ ”
Philip R. Goodwin: America’s Sporting & Wildlife Artist, A Private Collection is on view through May 8 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
From the May/June 2016 issue.