By Bob Bahr
Painting historical scenes from one of America’s favorite real-life stories can mean you don’t get a lot of leeway in how you depict things. But SKB’s key cowboy found a way to thread the needle.
Lee Cable was approached by Jim Parkman about painting a series of pieces depicting the life and accomplishments of Charles Goodnight, a hero among Texans and cattlemen of all kinds. Goodnight found a way to drive cattle to market that exposed the drive to the smallest amount of hostilities with Native Americans and outlaws. He also pioneered the marketing of longhorn cattle, which could survive the rough conditions on the trail through Texas and up through New Mexico to Fort Sumner. He invented the concept of the chuckwagon.
But when an artist depicts a historical figure, some hard decisions need to be made. The biggest question is how much of a stickler for factual detail the painter will be.
In the case of Charles Goodnight, much is written, but not much is illustrated. That meant Cable had to read journals, letters, and other research material carefully to determine what Goodnight probably wore, rode, and saw on his historic cattle drives. But it became clear to Cable that he was going to have to invent much in the paintings. That suited him fine.
Parkman asked Cable for some ideas for paintings, and Cable came up with 95 of them. They decided to shoot for 25 concepts. The first seven paintings went on view at the Museum of Western Art this week in Kerrville, Texas. Cable admitted to being a little nervous before the opening.
“It’s a little nerve-racking, to have the opening in front of a bunch of artists,” says Lee. The opening of his show of Goodnight paintings in the museum’s Thelma Kieckhefer Gallery fell during TexArt, and that meant about 80 of the best wildlife painters in the country were there to check out Cable’s series. “Jim asked, ‘Are you going to open up to questions?’ I don’t know. I’ll be accessible after to talk about my artistic choices. But this is a pictorial interpretation of our view of his life. It is historical. I don’t mind being critiqued, but I want the focus to be on Charles Goodnight. That’s why we are doing this series. Most people just know ‘Lonesome Dove,’ the miniseries based on Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. But our goal is that they will know more about Goodnight after I’ve done this. There’s not that much art on him–a few statues, and a painting of an event that happened on his watch.”
Unsurprisingly, the gathered artists loved the work and enjoyed Cable’s presentation, in which he briefly discussed the genesis of the project and the historical story behind each painting—and the artistic challenges each painting created. The paintings were paired with the drawings Cable did in preparation—beautiful pieces in themselves, done in graphite on Mylar. Cable painted on Belgian linen mounted on Gatorboard, using water-soluble oils. The paintings range from 24″-x-24″ to 36″-x-40″.
The series represented both a return to an illustrative style that Cable successfully used in the past, and a departure from his recent direction. “I’d never done anything like this before, telling a historical story,” says Cable. “This series is based on fact and well-known fiction. There were some restrictions because of this. Also, I was moving to a looser, more painterly style in my work, but people want to see more detail about the story in a series like this rather than how well it is painted. So it represents a sidetrack from where I was going with my art.”
So, the question comes back—how authentic can you be in a series of paintings like this? How much leeway do you have, Lee?
“This is my concept of what I read,” says Cable. “People will be hard pressed to say that it didn’t happen the way I depicted it, but still, it is my conjecture of what happened. There weren’t any photos on a cattle drive in his time!” Ω