15 December 2008

John L. Clarke's First Oil Painting

Real Oil Painting by Indian Louis W. Hill Discovers Red Man Artist in Glacier National Park.

[The talent of John L. Clarke, grandson of pioneer fur trader Malcolm Clarke and his Piegan Blackfeet wife, as a master wood-carver is well known. This story from the Daily Missoulian of 24 March 1912 is far less known.]

This is the unvarnished story of John Clark[e], a halfbreed Glacier park Indian. He never had seen a pot of oil paints, but he was a born artist and came into the light of things artistic with nature as his only teacher. Like all prodigies John, of course, remained to be discovered and the brush paints had to be furnished him before it really became known that he could reproduce in oils the marvelous scenic beauties which charmed him in his Rocky mountain environment.

Louis W. Hill is president of the Great Northern railway, but he lives his soul-life painting landscapes out in Uncle’s Sam’s mountain wonderland—Glacier national park.

One day, after traveling over the picturesque trails, Mr. Hill noticed his Indian guide sitting outside the Swiss chalet sketching with a stub lead pencil upon a rough board.

“What are you making, John?” he inquired, looking over the Indian’s shoulder.

“Huh, no make—just putting down what Great Spirit heap up hisself,” said John, intently adding the finishing touches to the outline of Two Medicine Falls, with the imposing mountain background, just as the eye sees it in the distance, looming up beyond the pretty waterfall, through the narrow vista which the fir-lined creek leaves open to the turbulent stream’s glacier source at the “top of the continent.”

“Superb!” exclaimed the amazed white critic, who had enjoyed the tutelage of some of the world’s most renowned scenic artists.

The red man was enthusiastically bombarded with a volley of eager questions concerning technique, etc. All of which was as Greek to the absorbed Indian sitting there using his lap for an easel. Simplified explanations of the white man only brought a mile over the bronze face. The Indian more astonished his admirer with the childlike statement that he liked the mountains and streams much, and just marked out the pictures of his eyes as a pastime.

Mr. Hill said no more to the guide because the fellow couldn’t talk art, but the artist-railway magnate did a lot of thinking that day, during the ride back over the trails to his private car at Midvale, Mont., the eastern gateway to park. Before leaving for St. Paul he again broached the subject to the redskin. John,” he said, “I’ll send you some paint and I want you to do that eye picture over for me on canvas.” The Indian looked rather puzzled, at first, but Mr. Hill finally made him understand just what he wanted. So, on returning to St. Paul, the railway chief ordered some paints, brushes and pieces of canvas about two and one-half by five feet sent to the nature artist up in the Rockies.

Just after Christmas Mr. Hill was busy at his desk pouring over matters pertaining to the operation of his great transcontinental railway when an express package was handed him. He unrolled it and was suddenly taken back to “God’s Own Country,” as he expressed it. There, before him, was Two Medicine falls and surroundings in the mountain fastness, clothed in all the radiance of its gorgeous, natural garb.

The original color painting, beautifully framed, now adorns a place in the costly art collection of at the Hill mansion on Summit avenue, St. Paul.

[Source: Missoulian Daily 24 Mar 1912, p. 12]


Anonymous said...

John L Clarke could not have had the aforementioned conversation because he was deaf and dumb from a childhood illness.

Fort Benton Historian said...

The author doesn't make clear, but does acknowledge that it wasn't a "conversation," since Clarke was deaf. By this time Clarke has been through special schools, and would communicate by writing thoughts and probably lip reading. My question is: "Has anyone seen this first John L. Clarke painting?" Is it with descendants of Hill or at the Minnesota Historical Society?