IRVING R. BACON (1875-1962)

A note from Robert E. Bonner.

When Irving R. Bacon met Buffalo Bill in 1901, he was already an established illustrator, even contributing 98 engravings and colored page plates to W. F. Bayer and O. F. Keydel's comprehensive history of the Congressional Medal of Honor, titled Deeds of Valor. William F. Cody received the Congressional Medal in 1872, after a relatively insignificant action against a small group of Indians. The publisher assigned Bacon to illustrate Cody's entry in the book, for which he drew a picture of Cody killing two escaping Indians with a single rifle shot. When Cody saw it he arranged with Bacon to produce a painted version of it, to be titled Buffalo Bill in Pursuit, or Two with One Shot. Bacon painted it in oil on canvas in 1901 and delivered it to Cody the following spring in New York where the Wild West was preparing for the 1902 season. [1]

Conquest of the Prairie, 1908
Irving R. Bacon | Oil on Canvas
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Thus began an association that lasted the remainder of Cody's life. Bacon was a skilled illustrator on the way to becoming a painter, and he found the patronage of the great Colonel Cody quite valuable as he constructed his career. Cody appreciated not only the young man's skill, but his willingness to fall into step with the creation of the mythology of Buffalo Bill Cody's West. This began even with the first picture that brought them together. Bayer and Keydel allowed Cody to narrate the incident in his own words, and his account read like a program for his Wild West. Bacon's illustration of the shooting fit perfectly with Buffalo Bill's Wild West self-presentation. Warren points out that the official report on which the award was based did not mention the shooting at all. As with so many of Cody's stories, when we look closely we are left to wonder just what did happen, but that is almost beside the point. The myth was what mattered, to both of them. Bacon was eager to sell paintings and to paint what Cody would pay for. He was so eager that Cody had to put him in his place quite early in their relationship. In December, 1902, Cody told Bacon he would do all right, "providing you can find those who will settle at your price for anything you wish to send them, and without their even ordering it." Bacon would have to show more common sense if he expected to do business with Buffalo Bill. "And please don't send me anything I don't order." But the old man would order plenty in good time. [2]

Immediately following the delivery of Two with One Shot in the spring of 1902, Bacon received his first commission directly from Cody. It was Buffalo Bill's habit every year when the Wild West tour ended to bring a group of friends and notable men out to Wyoming for a big game hunt. These hunts amounted to annual returns to the past for the old scout, a feeling no doubt reinforced by the regular presence of Iron Tail and others of his travelling Lakota performers. It must have seemed as if he could recreate history in the wild environment of the mountains along the eastern border of Yellowstone National Park. Cody kept hunting camps at favored spots in the headwaters of both the North and South Forks of the Shoshone River; these were familiarly known to men who worked with Cody as "picture camps." Photographs were almost always taken of these hunting parties with some of their trophies displayed. Cody supplied Bacon with a photograph taken at the 1901 hunt, and suggested he write to some of the men in that party to ask for personal photographs and suggestions for the painting. Bacon finished the painting by the fall of 1902. [3]

The Life I Love, 1902
Unknown | Photograph
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

The Life I Love, 1902
Irving R. Bacon | Oil on Canvas
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

The photograph of that 1901 hunt, widely-reproduced, carried Cody's autograph and an inscription labeling it "The Life I Love." Bacon's painting used that phrase as a title, but he did not follow the photograph slavishly. In particular, the treatment of Buffalo Bill himself shifted dramatically. When the photograph was taken Cody was just one of the party, seated among friends, leaning against a tree. Bacon's Cody–and this must surely have followed from prior consultation–is astride his horse, riding into the encampment to welcoming greetings from the gathered hunters. Cody intended the painting to hang in his new hotel, the Irma, where verisimilitude was less important than proper appreciation of Buffalo Bill's special place in the history and culture of the West. Cody was so pleased with the painting that he carried it along to decorate his tent when he set up the Wild West's second venture into Europe in 1903. He wrote Bacon that the painting had been admired by hundreds. He did not pay Bacon immediately for the work; payment issues seem to have cropped up with all his artists at one time or another. Finally, after months of reminding, Bacon received $650 for the work in August, 1903.

A matter of late payment did not, however, impair their working relationship. They had arranged before Cody sailed for England in December 1902 that Bacon would produce a new painting of Cody's famous duel with the Cheyenne warrior, Yellow Hand, at War Bonnet Creek in 1876. Bacon wrote to ask Cody some questions about the scene in January 1903. Cody's reply pictured the scene as a formal military encounter, with eight hundred Cheyenne on one ridge and 400 U.S. Cavalry on an opposing ridge. In the ravine between them Cody was to stand with the scalp held high and his foot on Yellow Hand's body, the then traditional depiction. Cody then directed his painter to depict the Indians charging him and the cavalry rescuing him, "and they arrive just in time–or I would not be here in Foggy London, where I am doing well." [4]

The Killing of Yellow Hand, 1906
Iriving R. Bacon | Oil on Canvas
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Bacon wrote back, expressing reservations about painting yet another iteration of the "First Scalp for Custer" scene by Robert Ottokar Lindneux that was such a central part of Cody's Wild West iconography. He asked Buffalo Bill to reconsider making the scalping so central to the painting and Cody agreed that the scalping "might look bad to some people," and suggested that it could be painted "with us both on horseback, horses at full gallop." This suggestion led to a radically different depiction of the fight, in which only the combatants and their horses appear. Cody shoots and kills Yellow Hand, but the matter of scalping is simply elided. As Paul Hedren has pointed out, this shift of focus probably served Cody better than the scalping pictures had done, as his show depended upon the willing cooperation of Indians and an appeal to a broad middle class audience. The old "First Scalp for Custer" image did not simply disappear, even after the Bacon painting was completed in 1906; it even decorated the memorial publication of Cody's autobiography in 1917. But Cody himself, when he published True Tales of the Plains in 1908, told the Yellow Hand story without reference to scalping, and used Bacon's painting as the illustration for that chapter. The painting was thus a new departure in representation of one of Buffalo Bill's most famous feats. [5]

When Buffalo Bill returned from England during the winter season of 1903, he had arranged with Bacon to pick him up when he passed through Chicago to go along on a prospecting trip up the South Fork above the TE ranch. His party arrived in Cody in late November and proceeded upriver as bitter winter weather settled on the mountains. Bacon had supplied himself with a full photographic kit and he took a great many photographs of ranch life at the TE, both outdoors and in, and then of the trip up to the mining camp. From at least two of them he produced striking watercolor paintings, one of Cody and his comrade, D. Frank Powell ("White Beaver") riding across a clearing, titled Leaving Hunting Camp, and the other a dramatic view of Cody from behind as he looked out over the canyon of the South Fork, titled Cody on the Ishawooa Trail. The experience clearly marked Bacon for life. He published an account of it in Outdoor Life a year later that was a press agent's dream. He was now fully enlisted in the Buffalo Bill coterie, serving him with brush, camera, and pen.

Cody on the Ishawooa Trail, 1904
Irving R. Bacon | Watercolor on Paper
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Bacon had shown a talent for producing lifelike paintings from photographs. In 1905 he sold Cody three more such productions, Pals of 1875, Foster Brothers, and He is a Child of Nature, for $640. But he was already at work on the Yellow Hand painting, an original oil, and clearly had his sights set higher. Soon after finishing The Killing of Yellow Hand, Bacon packed up to move to Munich to study painting with European masters, but he did not leave Cody and the Wild West behind. He began work on The Conquest of the Prairie in 1907, and in the summer of 1908 it was exhibited in the Glast Palast there. It was a very large (4' x 10') painting in the historical/allegorical style. There followed an exhibition in Paris in 1909, and several in American cities after his return to the United States that fall. Bacon had told Cody of his success by the summer of 1909; Cody saw it that fall and pronounced it "a great painting." Although allegorical narratives were old-fashioned by that time, history painting had once been the most noble of genres, and the conception of it was a great tribute to Cody. Artistically, it is a dramatic improvement over the Yellow Hand painting, striking in its composition and remarkably more professional in the treatment of the figures. The frame divides along a line from the lower left corner to the upper right. To the right of this line are gathered those who formerly held the plains, Indians and buffalo, and their movement is leftward, out of the picture. On the opposite side, a lone rider (Buffalo Bill) leads a wagon train into an emptying prairie. In the far distance gleams a modern city. This organization presents spatially the popular theories of natural social evolution that dominated discussion of "the Indian question" at the time. The conquest is not military, but the inexorable working of natural law, and the agent of it–here given pride of place–is Buffalo Bill. He did not commission the painting, but it could hardly have suited him better if he had. The size of the painting and the formal academic approval it earned, combined with its wide public exhibition, made it possibly the most effective of Cody's legacy paintings. [6]

Further contributing to Buffalo Bill's legacy, Bacon produced another historical painting of Cody and General Miles on winter campaign, completed in 1911. This painting, like Conquest of the Prairie, locates Cody where his Wild West mythology needs him; in this case he is on the front line of the last struggle of the Indian wars, and at the side of the general in command. At the time of the Ghost Dance excitement in December 1890, General Miles asked Buffalo Bill to go to Standing Rock Reservation to convince Sitting Bull into coming in to talk. His mission failed–in fact, it was probably sabotaged–but Cody stayed around Fort Robinson in Nebraska while the Seventh Cavalry massacred a band of Minneconjou at Wounded Knee. The closest he came to a military encounter was when he joined General Miles when they reviewed the troops after Wounded Knee. Bacon probably worked from a photograph of the two on the reviewing stand, but he placed them on a ridge in rough country, planning their next move. This painting, then, like the Conquest canvas, presented no exact historical moment, but drew attention to an historical role upon which Cody built his reputation. [7]

General Miles and Colonel Cody on Winter Campaign, 1911
Irving R. Bacon | Oil on Canvas
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Bacon and Cody drifted apart somewhat after 1911. Bacon sold Conquest of the Prairie for a goodly sum by 1915, and entered into the employment of Henry Ford. No doubt Bacon continued to regard Buffalo Bill with fondness, but when Cody offered such uncertain prospects and Ford never had to worry about money, it is not surprising that Bacon and Cody parted ways. Ultimately, Bacon performed some valuable work for Cody in preserving elements of his Wyoming life on canvas, but his greatest service lay in his paintings of the legacy of Buffalo Bill. Cody was attracted by the professionalism of the young Bacon's work as an illustrator; hiring him was a significant step up from calling upon old cronies like Cross and Stobie. Bacon cost Cody more than they did, but he gave infinitely greater value in return. His approach to painting for Cody perfectly accorded with the Cody's ideas, and he absorbed the Wild West mythology completely. The tragedy of this relationship was that just as the painter came into the fullness of his power the patron suffered the financial reverses that left him unable to support more work. It does not seem likely that Bacon would have achieved greatness as a painter had Cody been able to sustain their relationship; he did not produce great work in the service of Henry Ford. Such as it is, the work Irving R. Bacon did for Cody was the best he ever did, and taken altogether it is the best return Cody ever got for his patronage efforts.

[1] W. F. Bayer and O. F. Keydel, Deeds of Valor; How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor . . . ; (Detroit, 1901) vol. 2, 156; W. F. Cody to I. R. Bacon, Feb. 10, 1902, Bacon artist file, McCracken Library, BBHC. The story of Cody’s Medal of Honor can be found in Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America (New York, 2005), 115-117.

[2] Cody to Bacon, Dec. 27, [1902], Irving R. Bacon file, Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, Golden, CO. This is a problematic citation. There are no original documents of this correspondence in the Museum at Golden; rather, Steve Friesen, the director there, has collected a file of records of internet transactions on Ebay from 2000 to 2006, in which the individuals who purchased the Irving R. Bacon estate sold dozens of letters and photographs to individual collectors. Many of these E-bay advertisements contained copies or transcriptions of letters from Cody to Bacon. I have made some effort to trace these transactions, but have for the most part failed to locate the buyers. I have worked from a set of Ebay documents copied from Friesen’s. Those originals that have turned up I have cited to the depositories or collectors who hold them. In the context of this writing, the Bacon file at the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave refers to a dozen or so letters not publically available at this time, but glimpsed as they passed by in cyberspace.

[3] Robert Bonner, William F. Cody’s Wyoming Empire; the Buffalo Bill Nobody Knows (Norman, OK, 2007), 233-237; Bacon to Curtis L. Hinkle, McCracken Collection Digital Archive,; Whitney Gallery, object ID 15.64.

[4] Cody to Bacon, Mar. 9, 1903, Bacon artist file, McCracken Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West; receipt for payment dated Aug. 18, 1903, Bacon files, Buffalo Bill Musuem and Grave; Cody to Bacon, Jan. 12, 1903, collection of LB Trading Post, Ocean Park, Washington.

[5] Cody to Bacon, April 12, 1903, Collection of Michael del Castello, Vancouver, WA, used by permission, copy in Bacon artist file, McCracken Library; Cody to Bacon, June 9, [1903], Thomas Glass Collection, used by permission; Paul Hedren, “The Contradictory Legacies of Buffalo Bill Cody’s First Scalp for Custer,” Montana; The Magazine of Western History, Spring 2005, 16-35; W. F. Cody, Life and Adventures of Buffalo Bill, ed. William L. Visscher (Denver, 1917), 292; W. F. Cody, True Tales of the Plains (New York, 1908), 203-212. Russell’s painting may be seen in the Hedren article, p. 30. Hedren says that the 1908 publication was the first public appearance of Bacon’s painting. He also points out that the painting carried alternative titles, First Scalp for Custer and Killing of Yellow Hand, but in that book it is titled Killing of Yellow Hand, which in my mind gives that title priority.

[6] Receipt from I. R. Bacon to W. F. Cody, May 5, 1905, MS 6, Series I:B, box 2, ff. 28; Bacon correspondence file, Whitney Gallery, Buffalo Bill Center of the West; Bacon to Cody, May 30, 1909, Bacon artist file, McCracken Library; Cody to Bacon, Oct. 14, 1909, collection of LB Trading Post.

[7] Cody to Bacon, Nov. 5, 1909, Dec. 7, 1909, and Apr. 20, [1911], Bacon file, BBMG; Bacon to Cody, Aug. 4, [1912], collection of LB Trading Post; copy of I. R. Bacon statement concerning Conquest of the Prairie, Bacon artist file, McCracken Library; Bacon’s statement makes clear that he had painted both canvases before he returned to America.