Fine Art and True Grit
I was named after the 1953 western movie SHANE, starring Alan Ladd. It wasn’t until its re-release in 1959 that the movie became very popular. My mother decided if her next baby were a boy, the name Shane would promise her a sturdy lad. As it turned out, I was always the smallest kid in my classroom.
My collections may seem random and eclectic, but it has a consistent theme of art and grit that has fascinated me for many years. Collecting Western Art evokes nostalgic memories of my childhood and my cowboy heroes. My western art collection is exclusively the art of Harry Brown Baker.
The Art of Harry Brown Baker
Harry Baker was an American illustrator who, at the turn of the twentieth century, traveled the Old West extensively by train capturing scenes from a rapidly disappearing way of life. Working from both memory and immediate personal experience, he sketched and painted images of Native Americans, cowboys, saloon gunfighters and frontier life of the Wild West, feeding an intense public hunger for the thrill and drama of outlaw culture epitomized by Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. Citizens of the American East, by then well-established in towns and cities, held from a distance a raw, romanticized fascination for the vast, wide-open spaces, unlimited freedom, chaos, and lawlessness attributed to the mere idea of the West.
Baker’s work appeared on the covers of Western Story and Wells Fargo Messenger Magazine, and was in popular demand during the same era as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World” show. With a cast including Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, the unprecedented theatrical attraction played out an idealized version of the American West all over the East Coast and even in Europe, most notably in England for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The Wild West, at the time, was all the rage, and Baker’s illustrations added fuel to the fire, depicting its timeless characters at the apex of their perceived morality and virtue. Modern followers of Baker’s work, possibly familiar with the movie True Grit, may find the elevation of his subjects similar to characters in the film; even in an era when violence prevailed and respect for human life fell short, personal responsibility and virtue on the individual level could reach epic heights of selflessness, honor and nobility more than worthy of the being thought of heroes and legends in novels and dime magazines.
Henry Brown Baker was born on December 24, 1868 in Spencer, West Virginia. His family and friends called him Harry; and as an adult, he went by Harry Brown Baker or, following the conventions of the time, H.B. Baker. In 1883, at the age of 15, Harry departed West Virginia for Shawnee, Kansas, where he resided for a number of years. It is widely accepted that Baker met the artist Frederic Remington in Kansas City, where he worked during this period. Remington exerted a powerful esthetic influence over Harry via his exciting tales and sweeping, unconventional artistic representations of life in the West.
Harry later moved to Emporia, Kansas, where he worked as a railroad telegrapher and met the love of his life, Maud Hainer, an artist in her own right. They were married in 1897. In 1900, Harry and Maud Baker moved further away and settled in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Territory. Harry worked as a traveling salesman in the coal & oil industry and, as a result, spent endless days as a passenger on the steam engines then crisscrossing the West. He passed the time by practicing and perfecting his artistic ability, and spontaneously chose his subjects from the scenes naturally occurring around him. In the end, Baker had created a sizeable, visual documentation of Western life, a snapshot of a seminal epoch in American consciousness and culture, simply by sketching and the people, characters, conflicts and he encountered in the course of his everyday life.
Harry and Maude Brown circa 1910
Harry Brown circa 1918
In 1904, Harry and Maud voyaged to Paris, France, where they studied and lived for about a year. Maud returned to Oklahoma in 1905, while Harry stayed on for an additional year, finally returning home from Paris in 1906. Upon arriving back in the U.S., then 38 years old, he promptly moved with Maud to the East Coast, where they found a home in Essex County, New Jersey. Baker became well established in his new field; by 1910, his profession was listed on the U.S. census as an artist and illustrator of books and magazines. Harry became further immersed in artistic study at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, which would later become Parsons The New School of Design. During his years there, he became acquainted with Frank Alva Parsons, who would become director of the school; and in 1915, Mr. Parsons hired Baker as an assistant teacher in life drawing there..
Life drawing class at The New School of Fine and Applied Art. Harry Brown on far right. Circa 1933.
Harry became further immersed in artistic study at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, which would later become Parsons The New School of Design. During his years there, he became acquainted with Frank Alva Parsons, who would become director of the school; and in 1915, Mr. Parsons hired Baker as an assistant teacher in life drawing there. By 1920, Harry and Maud had moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. in order to be closer to his new position. Harry was given his own classroom, and he became a popular full-time teacher of life drawing. After a few years, he was offered a one-year post at the New York School’s Paris ateliers, which he accepted and successfully carried out during the 1927-1928 academic year. Upon their return to the U.S. in 1928, Harry and Maud resided briefly in Manhattan, then moved permanently to Paterson, N.J. Baker resumed his teaching career at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, teaching there until his death in 1941. During his career, he was known as an important teacher of the deaf artist Felix Kowalewski (1913-1989). Mrs. Baker lived just five years longer than Harry, and passed away in New Jersey 1946.
Harry Baker left a large collection of sketches, gouache and oil paintings. His work is strongly reminiscent of the style of renowned artist Frederic Remington. The Wild West lives on in the collective work of Baker and Remington in all of its rugged nobility, harshness and beauty.
A great many of Baker’s paintings were eventually passed down to the family of Sarah Fischer, whose grandmother was a landlord to the Bakers in the 1930’s. Fischer donated a small portion of the collection to the Kellen Archives at New School in New York City. The remainder, some 70 pieces, were sold to private collectors. In December 2015, Western Art Collector magazine did a feature story about the discovery of the Baker Studio collection. Original works by Harry Baker are occasionally offered at Old West Auction Events, Prices, to date, range from $300-$600 for ink and pencil sketches, and $3,000 to $6,500 for Baker's colorful gouaches.
The only known self-portrait of Harry Brown Baker, circa 1920
A large panoramic atonal oil on canvas titled "Coming through the pass" by Harry Brown Baker.
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