Landscape and Light in the Western

Two elements dominate in the West: landscape and light. When these two elements are missing, and you are from the West, you instantly note it. At least on a sub-conscious level. They are the two things that make any piece of Western fiction, art, or film “feel” true.

I admire the Western writing of H.A. De Rosso and Elmore Leonard very much. But the light and landscape they knew was Michigan.

I like Spaghetti Westerns, but the light and landscape behind them is invariably European. We instantly “feel” something different when we see a John Ford or John Wayne western.

In my recent review of Patten’s Guilt of a Killer Town I wrote the following:

[It is] “quality of light” issue that separates a Remington painting for a C.M. Russell one…. A Russell painting and a Remington painting are usually easily distinguished by the quality of light. And by the place landscape occupies.

In my long poem “Madison Buffalo Jump” I stated the issue this way:

Were Charlie Russell to paint this place, his eye
would capture the transforming maize and purples
of sage and grass. His studied strokes
evoking the very emotion of stone and shadow.
A triangular composition: three stone
rings balanced between the broken crown of rock
above and the bluing, mountainous sky. His
horseback understanding of prickly pear
and rattlesnakes providing textured light
to the clean, white canvass. Rival Remington,
classically trained but Eastern-bound, would hue these
rings in a different way, his brush strokes giving
an Impressionistic feel to his work–
the contrasting pastels of blues and yellows
showing techniques of Van Gogh. Organically
inappropriate, perhaps, but much acclaimed,
being a bit nearer to European
models of Art. (But for that even his “cow-
boy and Indian” art is seldom hung near
Dutch portraits or French haystacks– Western landscapes
and themes making poor subject for serious

Here are some paintings by Remington and Russell that show this idea very clearly. More clearly than I can probably make it with words.

While we can admire Remington and love his work, for a true Westerner, only Russell will ever “feel” right.