George Phippen and the Phippen Museum
"If George Phippen were alive today, a lot of so-called cowboy artists would be looking for a hole to hide in," remarked a old friend of his over lunch the other day. "George could do it all – sketches, watercolors, oils, sculpture." George Phippen passed away over 30 years ago, at the too-soon age of 50. His grave is in the Skull Valley cemetery. It is easily noticeable as the grave of an artist. Mrs. Phippen – Louise – still maintains a studio and gallery in their home in Skull Valley. Before Phippen crossed the Great Divide, he produced a remarkable number of artworks, all without formal training, and was a leader in establishing the Cowboy Artists of America, an elite group that today even includes some Indian artists. George Phippen was the first President of CAA.
In the forward to the book containing much of Phippen's work as selected by Louise Phippen, "The Life of a Cowboy," published by the University of Arizona in 1969, Dick Spencer writes: "Without getting into any arguments on art, it might be said that cowboy art is one of the purest American art forms. Any competent artist can turn out a Western painting, but that doesn't make it cowboy art. To qualify, the artist must have cowboy in his blood, and must paint subjects he sees and feels and understands and loves. George Phippen did that. In his paintings and drawings and bronzes, one can feel the heat and smell the dust; shiver to the bite of the cold and the howl of the wind; hear the pounding of hoofs or the creak of saddle leather. George lived these things, and was sensitive to the details."
In 1984, Prescott's only museum devoted to the art of the American West opened on a five-acre hillside north of Watson Lake, and was named for George Phippen. The Phippen Museum, superbly managed by Sue Willoughby, is 16 years old, but the highly popular Phippen Western Art Show and Sale is in its 26th year. As you read this on Sunday morning, there are two days remaining to mosey down to Courthouse Plaza and take in the show. The Phippen Museum's Memorial Day Weekend art show is one of the best uses of the historic downtown square. You have a chance to visit directly with many accomplished artists, to see them at work, and to purchase their pieces. The poster art for this year's show is titled "Headin' Through Dry Country," by Ray Swanson, also a member of the prestigious Cowboy Artists of America. Prescott, already dry enough this spring, would be drier still, and in another way, if the Phippen Museum were not a part of our landscape, a part of our cultural community.
The work of George Phippen has been compared to the two acknowledged masters of Western art and cowboy art, Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington. Russell, born near St. Louis in 1864, arrived in Montana four days short of his 16th birthday, and died there in Great Falls 46 years later. Russell worked for 11 years as a horse wrangler for a big outfit in the Judith Basin of central Montana. It was through that occupation that he learned and studied and molded the cowboy life into art. Called a "storyteller in paint," Russell lived the cowboy life before becoming internationally famous in the years before World War I as an artist of the American West. Remington did not have the prolonged Western experience that Russell relished and lived. Born in New York State in 1861, Remington went to Yale, and played in some of the earliest college football games. He spent some time in Kansas as a sheep rancher, but eventually found his way back to New York City and to formal training in art, and later to an island retreat upstate. Remington returned to the West now and then on assignment for "Harper's Weekly" and other clients, but did not establish permanent residence in the region as did Russell, or as did George Phippen for that matter.
Remington died in 1909. In an interview a few years before his death, Remington remarked a bit sourly, "People won't stand for my painting sunsets … got me pigeon-holed in their minds, you see; want horses, cowboys, out West things … won't believe me if I paint anything else." George Phippen wouldn't think of painting anything else. George Phippen wasn't fighting stereotypes. He wasn't sour about anything. He was busy getting it right. Examine anything he produced, in the collections of the Phippen Museum or elsewhere. If you have ever been close to horses and dust and cattle and hard work and hard play outdoors, you'll see that he got it. Living and working in Skull Valley in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, George Phippen got it right.
(Richard S. Sims is director of Sharlot Hall Museum).