A note from Robert E. Bonner.

Robert Farrington Elwell was probably the first artist to enter into permanent employment with Buffalo Bill. The Wild West showed in Boston, near where 21 year-old Elwell lived, in 1895. Cody clearly took a liking to the young man and, by the summer of 1899, Elwell was working for Cody in Wyoming in some capacity. Before they met Elwell was already a published artist of a sort, having illustrated two books in 1893. They were not very good, but he was only nineteen years old and, by all accounts, entirely self-taught. Employing Elwell appears to be Cody's first step toward creating a circle of artists around him who might begin documenting his life.

At Home on the TE Ranch near Cody, Wyoming, n.d.
R. Farrington Elwell | Pencil
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Cody employed Elwell in one capacity or another in Wyoming during the next three or four summers after 1899. Whatever he was doing for Cody, Elwell was working hard to develop a style that would gain him a name as an illustrator. He hoped to use the Cody connection to further that career. In the summer of 1900 he returned to Boston trying to sell some illustrations. Cody gave him a letter he could show around to publishers, commending his drawings of Western characters from the Wild West, going so far as to say that "they compare favorably with Mr. Frederic Remington's work." Publishers would not, of course, rely upon Buffalo Bill's judgment in such matters, but this letter demonstrates an early attempt by both patron and client to make some way in the art world under Cody's reputation. [1]

The summer of 1901 found Elwell fully employed pursuing Cody's interests in Wyoming. He had terminated his employment with the Metropolitan Water Board in Boston in the spring and moved his wife and daughters west with him. Cody's tone in his letters to Elwell is familiar and cordial; they are mostly signed "Col", the abbreviation he used with his friends. Elwell seems to have been working mostly at the TE ranch, but he also spent time at the camp of Frank Kelsey, the engineer surveying the irrigation project Buffalo Bill hoped to develop downriver from his town of Cody. Cody asked Elwell to prepare a drawing of his new hotel in Cody, the Irma, and send it to him at Detroit in July, 1902, but for the most part his work for Cody was distinct from his artistic career. They lived in Wyoming, either working for Cody or running their own horse ranch, until 1911. In 1911 Elwell was back in Massachusetts working as an illustrator, where he remained until years after Cody's death. Eventually he returned west, and lived out a long and productive life in Arizona, primarily as a commercial artist. [2]

Life in Wyoming in the service of Bill Cody provided young Elwell with material and opportunity to develop his skills as an illustrator. The illustrations he produced and sold in the first decade of the twentieth century are almost exclusively western scenes, a great many of them action scenes featuring horses. The attraction Cody felt for him must have been mostly personal, for his work in the 1890s has very little to recommend it. A pair of illustrations for Leslie's Magazine in 1902 reveal a more mature and practiced hand. Elwell also published work in Pearson's Magazine, Century, Outing, and Harper's, but it was clearly not enough to keep a family.

The Battle of Summit Springs, n.d.
R. Farrington Elwell | Pencil
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

In 1906 Cody wrote Elwell from France to offer "to do something for you where you can make some money." Cody needed a lot of new lithography for the return of the Wild West to America in 1907, and he offered Elwell a chance to prepare the drawings. Elwell would have to work in New York under the eyes of the Wild West publicity team; if he could meet the standards of these men and his publisher in Buffalo, the Courier Company, "you will never have any more worries with magazine publishers." Cody's associates were clearly less impressed by Elwell's work than he was, and they–particularly Louis E. Cooke, the General Partner–worked hard to sustain the consistently high quality of the Wild West posters. Despite this failure, Cody secured Elwell a commission to produce five illustrations for the 1908 edition of his book True Tales of the Plains, but that would have been small change beside the Wild West lithography contract. [3]

Cody rained letters on Elwell at his post along the Yellowstone road in 1907, and sent him some lithographs and other "pictorial work" for him to frame. Many of the letters were simply short, friendly notes, but some of them contained an outline of a literally fantastic trip that grew in Cody's imagination throughout that spring. The two of them, Cody and Elwell, were going to ride off alone on horseback in November, after the Wild West folded its tents. They were going to ride from TE over the continental divide into Jackson's Hole, then down the Snake River to a railhead in Idaho. They would take the train to southern Utah, where they would get up another pack outfit and ride into the Grand Canyon. When they came out of the canyon they would continue on a train down to Mexico, where they would once again ride off into the mountains, and end their wanderings in Mexico City. Cody claimed to have interested Pearson's Magazine in publishing stories of this journey that they would write, with Elwell's illustrations. [4]

The journey, which Cody took to calling "the greatest trip ever made," seemed to possess him. He told Elwell that Arthur Little, the editor of Pearson's, wanted to send a man along with them to write up accounts of the trip, but Cody continued to say he and Elwell could write them. He also said "half a dozen rich millionaires" wanted to go with them, but he did not want a big party, even if they paid all the expenses. In July, having apparently resisted the millionaires, Cody reported a siege of artists. He told Elwell that Charles Schreyvogel, Frederic Remington, Charlie Russell, and E. W. Lenders all wanted to go with them; "all these artists are wild to study our fast disappearing West." Turning to practical matters, he encouraged Elwell to learn how to pack horses, and asked him what kind of cook he was. "I am going to make an all around mountain man of you. . . . And you will be known as Buffalo Bill's cooking mountain artist." [5]

Camp Foley, 1907
R. Farrington Elwell | Oil on Canvas
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

By August, the long pack trip from TE had come to seem too much. Instead, they would have a little hunt from TE, return to Cody, and take the train to the Grand Canyon. "Don't mention this to anyone, as I want it to appear from TE to Old Mexico." But even this shorter trip fell through. "The greatest trip ever made" began and ended with a hunting party led by Tom Foley, an Omaha friend. Elwell went along on that hunt and took a photograph of the camp, from which he later produced two paintings titled Pahaska Hunting Party (1904) and Camp Foley (1907). This was a long way short of the spring's plan, although it is difficult to believe that the plan, the millionaires, or the multitude of artists clamoring after them were ever anything more than a cloud of illusion in old Cody's mind. The hunting trip was the same kind of thing Cody had done every fall he had been in Wyoming, not "the greatest" anything. But Elwell made and sold two paintings from it, one of which traded for over $14,000 in 1999. There was nothing illusory about that. [6]

The Camp Foley painting was not Elwell's first such effort for Cody, but it was his best. The 1904 painting is a lifeless, stagy presentation of seventeen men and their horses, with Buffalo Bill standing front and center looking rather like an emperor. The 1907 painting seems to be the work of a more confident artist. It is a camp scene instead of a posed group portrait. There are only three men and two horses in the central composition. George Beck and Bill Cody share center stage, in quite natural, even characteristic positions: Beck sitting, with his hat square on his head and his rifle in his lap; Cody standing with his hands behind his back, talking with Beck. A third man, surely Tom Foley himself, was already mounted and waiting for the other two, and two other men were packing and saddling horses off to the side. Where the Pahaska hunting scene puts the viewer off, the Camp Foley one invites the viewer in. There is nothing remotely Napoleonic about the Camp Foley presentation, and the viewer feels much closer to Bill Cody, the man, as a result. [7]

When the Elwells moved to their own ranch, he naturally had less to do with and for Cody. Cody did not even know where Elwell's ranch was located until late in 1908. They exchanged more than a few letters in 1908, and Cody continued to regard the Elwell family with obvious warmth. In 1909 and 1910 the correspondence languished. Elwell must have decided that his illustration work would go better if he were located in the East, and moved back to the Boston area in 1911. There was little more communication between Cody and Elwell until 1916, when Cody began to publish his last autobiography, serially in Hearst's Magazine. Having failed to interest Irving R. Bacon in the job, Cody determined that he wanted Elwell to illustrate it, but he could not convince his editor, Mr. Haggard. Haggard apparently preferred N. C. Wyeth, for all the illustrations used in the series, which closed in July 1917, were by Wyeth. But even as late as October 1916, Cody still advocated for Elwell. He shifted his focus to the book publication that was to follow the magazine serial. He told Elwell he would write directly to William Randolph Hearst if he had to, but he needed some help from Elwell. "I want you to write me just what I should say to Mr. Hearst how the illustration should be made for the book, so they will have the atmosphere & breath [sic] of the west." Unfortunately, Cody's intention to publish it as a book, with Elwell's illustrations, died with the author. [8]

Pahaska Hunting Party, 1904
R. Farrington Elwell | Oil on Canvas
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Elwell later likened his relationship with Cody to that of father and his son, and the two obviously enjoyed a close personal and professional relationship. But Elwell's artistic talent was not such that all of Cody's efforts on his behalf could lever him into a position of advantage in the art world. He remained primarily a commercial artist and magazine illustrator, although he produced a number of oil paintings after he moved to Arizona in the 1930s. In his long western life after Bill Cody's death, Elwell continued to take advantage of that relationship, with the result that today the biographies that accompany attempts to sell Elwell paintings not only speak of their relationship, but attribute things to it that stretch the truth beyond recognition. The six or seven years Elwell spent in Wyoming, one of which was in a managerial position at Cody's tourist inn on the Yellowstone Road, expand into twenty-five years as manager of Cody's ranches in Wyoming. One summer in camp with an irrigation surveyor qualifies him as a consultant on Cody's vast irrigation projects. Patricia Broder, in Bronzes of the American West, asserts that he was employed by "Cody Enterprises" for close to twenty-five years, managing Cody's cattle and horse ranches and hotels, and engineering his irrigation projects. It is impossible to know where these misconceptions originated, but it would be naïve to think that Elwell himself had nothing to do with it. [9]

R. Farrington Elwell came into Bill Cody's life while the Colonel was just beginning to think of an artistic enterprise in Wyoming. The principal value in this relationship for Buffalo Bill seems to have been personal: he was making the young man into a friend and helping him where he could, but this was not a relationship based primarily upon the ability of the artist to produce what the patron needed. Cody seems to have recognized this, for Elwell and Irving R. Bacon were contemporaries and Cody sought work from Bacon in preference to Elwell throughout the fifteen years of his life that they shared. Elwell may best be seen as a younger version of Henry H. Cross or Charles S. Stobie. The three of them testify to an immaturity of artistic judgment in Buffalo Bill, and an unwillingness to support the expense that patronizing genuine artists such as Frederic Remington would entail. [10]

[1] Cody to Elwell, June 23, 1900, box 1, ff 15, MS 6, McCracken Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

[2] Cody to Elwell, April 27, [1901], May 3, [1901], box 1, ff 23, MS 6; May 9, [1901], box 1, ff 16, MS 6; May 11, [1901], box 2, ff 2, MS 6; May 29, [1901], box 1, ff 3, MS 6; June 29, 1902, box 1, ff 18, MS 6; May 28, 1906, box 1, ff 22, MS 6; April 14, 1907, box 1, ff 23, MS 6; Sean Fisher, Boston Metropolitan District Commission, to Frances Clymer, McCracken Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, July 29, 2002, in Elwell Artist File, McCracken Library; Mark, “Last of the Old West Artists,” 62.

[3] Cody to Elwell, March 7, 1906, March 23, 1906, May 25, 1906, July 16, 1906, box 1, ff 22, MS 6, McCracken Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West; Jack Rennert, in 100 Posters of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (New York, 1978), 4, named him among the "master designers" of the time, but does not tie him to any particular work; William F. Cody, True Tales of the Plains, New York, 1908. The five illustrations he prepared for this publication had nothing to do with the text; they were more in the line of advertisements for life in Wyoming.

[4] Cody to Elwell, April 10, 1907, and April 14, 1907, box 1, ff 23, MS 6, McCracken Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

[5] Cody to Elwell, April 27, 1907, May 5, 1907, May 19, 1907, July 18, 1907, box 1, ff 23, MS 6, McCracken Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West."

[6] Cody to Elwell, Aug. 19, 1907, Oct. 12, 1907, box 1, ff 23, MS 6; Sarah Boehme to Wiley Buchanan III, Nov. 24, 1998, R. F. Elwell artist file, McCracken Library; Helen Sage, in The Gun Report, Nov. 1999, Elwell artist file, McCracken Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

[7] The Whitney Gallery’s painting by this title, virtually identical to the one shown here, is object no. 158.69. Cody kept Elwell’s 1904 and 1907 pictures in his own collection; Tom Foley purchased the second of the 1907 paintings. It is worth noting that Elwell rearranged the figures in the Pahaska painting, moving Cody to the center and presenting him in a heroic pose he did not assume in the photograph; P. 69.1134, 95, series XI:C, box 10, MS 6, McCracken Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West."

[8] Cody to Elwell, Jan. 28, 1908, June 1, 1908, July 30, 1908, Dec. 2, 1908, in box 2, ff 1, MS 6; Cody to Elwell, July 31, 1909, Nov. 3, 1910, box 2, ff 2, MS 6; Cody to Elwell, Apr. 26, [1911], box 2, ff 4, MS 6; Cody to Elwell, June 29, [1912], box 1, ff 3, MS 6; Cody to Elwell, Dec. 13, [1913], box 2, ff 7, MS 6, McCracken Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The drawings for postcards, which Elwell evidently hoped would be sold at Wild West venues, depicted scenes from Cody’s life. Looking at them (Whitney Gallery object ID 153.69.1 through 153.69.12, all but one pencil sketches) one can see why a professional like Cooke would have set them aside. Cody to Elwell, March 5, [1916] from New Rochelle, NY, box 1, ff 3, MS 6; Cody to Elwell, Oct. 12, 1916, and Oct. 21, 1916, Nov. 2 and Nov. 9, box 2, ff 9, MS 6, McCracken Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West. See also, W. F. Cody, “The Great West that Was” Hearst’s Magazine, Sept. 1916 through July 1917, in MS 62, Don Russell Collection, Series I:D, box 1, ff 12, McCracken Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

[9] Mark, “Last of the Old West Artists,” repeats all of these and adds a couple. Peggy and Harold Samuels, attributing this information to Mark in their biography of Remington, write of a trip Remington made to the TE in 1897, where he hunted and painted with Elwell. See Samuels, Frederic Remington, a Biography (New York, 1982), 257.

[10] Cody to Elwell, June 11 and June 17, 1916, box 2, ff 9, MS 6, McCracken Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.