JESSE JAMES IN MELANCHOLY LIGHT – THE INTERPRETATIONS OF N.C. WYETH and NICK CAVE
The Western film is one form of the genre within a continuum of expression. The genre itself stretches from the Western art of the early 19th century to the literature and dime novels of the mid- and late 19th century into the 20th century with the emergence of film; film itself was followed by radio, television and now 21st century video games. Musical expression of Western themes has also been created during this time period, ranging from subject-focused folk ballads to commissioned soundtracks for film.
Western subjects have often found interpretation across a number of the genre’s mediums and by those who are not known solely as Western artists. N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), the acclaimed American painter and illustrator, included Western subjects within his wide-ranging portfolio of themes. Sponsored by an Eastern publishing house, the Massachusetts-born Wyeth travelled to the West in 1904 and 1906 to experience life there. During these trips he worked on a Colorado ranch, met with the Navajo people in Arizona Territory and travelled thru what is now New Mexico. The impressions of these trips would be subsequently expressed in a number of his works.
The painting, The James Brothers in Missouri, is an undated work by Wyeth and demonstrates how the Jesse James story has been interpreted across a number of mediums in addition to film. Viewers have noted how Wyeth expresses a sense of both wariness and weariness in this oil painting. The figure of Jesse James stands looking toward something beyond our view, his brother sits tiredly with pistol and a gang member has also fixed his gaze in the same direction as Jesse. The figures and horses are bathed, to this viewer, in a melancholy light that does not glamorize but instead shows the practicalities of a life at the edges of society – refuge from sight must be taken and your guard must be kept. Wyeth’s Jesse can be interpreted as a man who remains determined on his chosen path – his eyes seem ready to meet any challenge and his arm is crooked in defiance – while the elder brother Frank seems worn out and wondering. This interpretation very much reflects the real-life paths of the two historical brothers.
The James Brothers in Missouri (Undated)
(Click on image for larger view.)
(From the Collection of the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK)
As a coda to discussion of the painting, the moody and meditative film soundtrack that composer Nick Cave created for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck – also creates a melancholic space for reflection upon the figure of Jesse James. The film’s score has received a number of critical accolades. The following track is entitled “Song for Jesse”:
N.C. Wyeth’s The James Brothers in Missouri can currently be viewed at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)