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) 

frameimage

(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)

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4 thoughts on “JESSE JAMES IN MELANCHOLY LIGHT – THE INTERPRETATIONS OF N.C. WYETH and NICK CAVE

  1. What a wonderful post Chad. I like your interpretation of the painting – defiance and resignation fused together, with the former still dominating at this point. It does seem to capture the popular image of the two brothers and distill the essence of the characters. I’d like to think the horses represent freedom or escape, relegated to the background, especially the pure white one, now that the brothers have effectively sealed their own fate.

  2. Thank you for the comment, Colin, and your own thoughts on the painting….much appreciated. There are “notes” struck in the melody of this painting that hang and linger…to me, anyway.

    Thanks again,
    Chad

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