HENRY H. CROSS (1837-1918)

A note from Robert E. Bonner.

When the organizers of the 1909 Minnesota State Fair chose to exhibit a collection of portraits of thirty Indian leaders and American frontiersmen painted by Henry H. Cross, the published guide contained a copy of a letter from Buffalo Bill Cody to Cross. It was dated April 2, 1901, a personal communication thanking Cross for a pair of paintings he had sent, praising Cross's painting of Indian and animal subjects in typically extravagant terms. The letter, although not intended for publication, served to attach the seal of approval of the famous scout and showman to Cross's work in a part of the country where he was not well known. He wrote an additional letter to Cross that same day clearly intended to be used as an endorsement of Cross's work. This second letter praised his artistic ability and connected it to Cross's personal history in the unsettled West. He included the statement, no doubt at Cross's suggestion, that "your sketches and paintings were all made from life when you were there." Both letters were probably shown around; the first one, longer and more personal, probably proved more effective. A few years later R. H. Adams, curator of the Walker collection, solicited a letter from Cody for a new catalog of the collection, grown to 125 portraits. Cody responded enthusiastically, figuratively wrapping his arms around "my dear old friend," saying he had known Cross since the days Cody had served as Chief of Scouts for General Sherman, and asserting that Cross was "the greatest painter of Indian portraiture of all times." These letters show Buffalo Bill in three of his favorite roles: the boon companion, the lordly patron, and the authority who authenticates what is or is not genuinely Western. [1]

The Herd Bull, 1879
Henry H. Cross | Oil on Canvas
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Henry Cross probably began painting, without formal training, as a teenager working for the P. T. Barnum circus. Most of the literature on him has him traveling to France at that age to study with Rosa Bonheur, but a careful recent study by Eva Smithwick has exposed that as a fabrication. He went west around the age of thirty, and–like Charles Stobie and Bill Cody–put in some service as a civilian scout with the army. When he set out to sell, in the early twentieth century, a set of portraits of the Sioux hanged after the Minnesota uprising in 1862 he claimed to have been there, but Smithwick has cast doubt on that as well. He apparently did spend some time in the West in the 1870s; a surviving testimony describes Cross capturing the scene in 1879 that became Perils of the Chase, one of Cody's favorite paintings. It seems quite clear that Buffalo Bill did consider him an old friend. In the first of the above-mentioned letters he says to Cross, "I begin to think you are part Indian and part buffalo," and twice refers to the times they shared in the old days. He says he intends to give the Cross pictures, one of a buffalo and the other a portrait of John Grass, an Oglala Lakota who had traveled to Europe with Cody, to the Prince of Wales. He even invited Cross to join him on his planned return to Europe, to live with him and paint, and he closes by also inviting him to join in his fall hunt in the Big Horn Basin. [2]

Cross and Cody had not been traveling the same trails since Cody went on stage in the 1870s. Cross had developed a style and a reputation for painting animals, especially horses, and earned quite a bit of money on commission for Lucky Baldwin in southern California and Marcus Daly, the Copper King of Butte, Montana. In the 1890s he was established in a studio in Valparaiso, Indiana, raising a second family. How he and Buffalo Bill re-connected we cannot know, but as the Wild West toured Indiana in 1896, 1897, and 1898, Cross would have had ample opportunity to find his old friend. When they did meet again, Cody was building his life in Wyoming, and he invited Cross to travel west to do some painting for him. Cross came to Cody in either 1897 or 1899. An oil sketch of Cody's famous horse, Brigham, is dated 1897, but most of the dated work from that trip shows 1899, and Cross's dates are frequently unreliable; one of the six he produced on that trip he dated 1879! [3]

The Victor, 1878
Henry H. Cross | Oil on Canvas
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Cross produced two large paintings from his Cody visit, which despite their size, lacked much artistic virtue. The Victor, a staged scene in which a huge bull buffalo stands in triumph over the dead form of an Indian hunter, is offensively anthropomorphic and over-dramatized. It measured 94.25 inches by 70. Dating it in 1879 may have been Cross's way of referencing his Perils of the Chase, a favorite composition of Cody's on the same theme. He testified in a letter dated April 20, 1901, that he had been present when Cross finished that painting, which Smithwick dates to 1900. This letter survives in company with an anonymous description of the events Cross witnessed that led to his painting. The actual relation between the description and the letter is unclear, although the effect allows the reader to consider Bill Cody as a witness to the killing of an Indian by a bull buffalo, and the subsequent painting of it by Cross. The document could certainly have been used as evidence that Cody considered Cross's work authentically Western. [4]

The other large one (48" x 72"), Shoshone Canyon, was a view of the Cody townsite as it might have appeared before Cody arrived. Painted from the hills east of town looking westward at the towering mountains and the river flowing between them, it is visually arresting as landscape art, but it does not look much like the country it purports to represent. Scattered across the plain where the town was to grow was a most peculiar herd of perhaps twenty elk, consisting of matched pairs of bulls and cows grazing peacefully together. Dan Muller, a young man who spent some time in Cody working at the Irma in the early days, tells of Buffalo Bill and his friend, George Beck, standing around in the bar where the painting was hung, "toasting the quality of the does, the amiability of the bucks, and the wildlife knowledge of the artist." It is hard to imagine that neither man knew that in real life, one of those bulls would have rounded up all of those cows to form his own harem. [5]

Whatever he thought of Cross's wildlife knowledge, Cody kept in touch with the artist, as we have seen. Cross did not take up the invitation to go to Europe with him in 1903, and apparently painted no more for Buffalo Bill. But this brief contact with Cody evidently served to redirect the course of Cross's career. He left behind his life work as a painter of animals; after 1901 his choice of subject matter was influenced by his perception of the great success Buffalo Bill enjoyed peddling his vision of the West around the rest of the nation. He obviously expected to trade upon his friendship with the great Western hero as he set out to paint a series of portraits of Indian leaders and American heroes of the western wars. This must have seemed like a good career choice for him when T. B. Walker purchased some of his portraits and commissioned him to produce more for the collection he was building in Minneapolis. Eventually Cross produced 125 of these portraits for Walker; these are housed today in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. Perhaps driven by the fetish of authenticity that was the hallmark of Buffalo Bill's life in show business, Cross insisted that he painted his Indians from life. He continued to date his paintings from the time of the Indian wars when, in reality, he painted many of them from photographs by famous frontier photographers. Close to half of them look virtually like the same man wearing different dress. [6]

Neither Cody's apparent acceptance of Cross's Wyoming paintings nor his subsequent letters on behalf of the Indian portrait work give us much in the way of confidence in Buffalo Bill's artistic judgment. It seems to have been more important for him to play the patron where Cross was concerned. He kept Cross's name before a public interested in history and art. Cross's connection with Buffalo Bill worked well for him for a few years, but it was not sufficient to keep his reputation afloat after 1915, when questions about the authenticity of his work began to erode its value.

[1] Descriptive Catalogue with reproduction of life-size Bust Portraits of Famous Indian Chiefs, Great Medicine Men, and Notable Indian Warriors, Renowned Explorers, Scouts & Guides, Exhibited in the Minnesota Pioneers Portrait Galleries [St. Paul, 1909], 5; Letters, Cross, H. H., 1902-1906, THE CENTURY COLLECTION, New York Public Library; R. H. Adams, T. B. Walker Art Galleries Illustrated Catalogue of Indian Portraits, ([Minneapolis], 1927), 113.

[2] Eva Smithwick, Henry H. Cross, 1837-1918, (Calgary, 1994); Cody to Cross, April 20, 1901, Descriptive Catalogue (1909), 5.

[3] Henry H. Cross correspondence file, Whitney Gallery, Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The Brigham painting is object ID 22.64; no reproduction is available. The 1879 painting is The Victor, object ID 2.58; Smithwick (pp. 14-15) shows conclusively it could not have been painted before the mid-1890s.

[4] Smithwick, Henry H. Cross, 14-15; “Perils of the Chase; a Picture of the Primitive West,” H. H. Cross Letters, 1902-1906, Century Collection, New York Public Library.

[5] Dan Muller, My Life with Buffalo Bill (Chicago, n.d.), 189-190; Shoshone Canyon, for which no reproduction is available, is Whitney Gallery object ID 26.64; it has never been shown in the Gallery, but hangs as it always has, and The Victor with it, in the bar and dining room at the Irma Hotel.

[6] Smithwick, Henry H. Cross, 15-18.