Art Gallery: AR Mitchell – Cowboys and Indians Magazine
The work of Trinidad-born Western artist AR Mitchell has been celebrated for a century for his ability to portray “the West today”.
Early in his career, Arthur Roy Mitchell received sound financial advice from fellow painter Harvey Dunn: “When they ask you what a painting is for,” Dunn said, “tell them ‘for sale’.
Mitchell’s oil-on-canvas Western scenes were museum-quality, and that’s where they now reside: in the museum that bears his name in Mitchell’s hometown of Trinidad, Colorado, just 11 miles north. north of the New Mexico state line. But they first became popular almost 100 years ago, when he took Dunn’s advice and sold them to publishers to adorn the covers of Western pulp magazines such as Ace-High, true westand Frontier stories. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Mitchell’s illustrations appeared on over 160 covers. Readers browsing newsstands would often find his vivid and colorful images appearing side by side on different publications.
A bad fall (1930s), oil on canvas
“These weren’t Hollywood’s version of the West; they were scenes from his life in the West today,” says Allyson Sheumaker, the museum’s executive director. “Everyone in his paintings were people he knew.”
The AR Mitchell Museum of Western Art opened in 1981 and 10 years later moved to a 4,400 square meter space built over a century ago as a department store. “The building is really part of the collection,” says Sheumaker. “Our display cases, furniture and floors all come from the old store.” A horseshoe-shaped mezzanine features exhibitions by guest artists.
They weren’t Hollywood’s version of the West; they were scenes from his life in the present West.
Mitchell was born in Trinidad in 1889, just a few years after Bat Masterson presented his badge as city marshal. He grew up four blocks from the Old Santa Fe Trail, where boxcars ferried pioneers west until the track was laid for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. he couldn’t find paper to capture the frontier scenes that surrounded him, so he sketched with chalk on the city’s wooden sidewalks.
At age 17, he worked spring and fall cob for the Adams Cattle Company in New Mexico, but Mitchell’s passion for art eventually overtook his dream of being a cowboy. After military service, he began his formal art training in New York City under Harvey Dunn at the Grand Central Art School in Grand Central Station.
Mitchell sold his first paintings in January 1927 for the covers of cowboy stories and Northwest Stories. In the 1930s it also supplied Houghton Mifflin Company boot jacket covers. One of them – The end of the black potabout bandit Thomas (Black Jack) Ketchum — must have brought back memories: “When Mitchell was 11, he had a ticket to Black Jack Ketchum’s hanging in New Mexico. He couldn’t go because that he couldn’t find a way to make it happen,” Sheumaker says.
Three for the roadoil on board
He returned in the 1940s to Trinidad, where he continued to paint while teaching art at the local junior college. In 1955, he bought the city’s oldest structure, the adobe Baca House, and turned it into a pioneer museum. Mitchell served as the museum’s curator until 1975.
It was her strong community ties, which lasted until Mitchell’s death in 1977, that motivated her sister Ethel to find a local home for her works. “He retained ownership of many of the oil on canvas paintings he made,” says Sheumaker. “He knew most would end up in a closet, so he always asked to keep them, which is great for us because we have so many.”
The AR Mitchell Museum of Western Art houses 340 original works, both paintings and magazine covers, as well as thousands of sketches he drew before creating the final published versions. Even these reveal Mitchell’s gift for precision in the details of Western equipment and his mastery of horse anatomy.
The museum also features paintings that Mitchell had acquired in commerce with friends and contemporaries Harvey Dunn and Harold von Schmidt, as well as his collections of Native American textiles and pottery.
Between the devil and the deep sea
For more information on AR Mitchell and his namesake museum, visit armitchellmuseum.com.