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Will James

 (1892 - 1942)
Will Roderick James was active/lived in Montana, California, Quebec / Canada.  Will James is known for book illustration, western horse -genre painting.

Will James

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Will James
Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault, later to be known as Will James, was born on June 6, 1892, in Quebec, Canada. Known for both his writing and his precise pencil drawings, Will's drawing experiences began on his mother's kitchen floor.

At a young age, he departed Canada and traveled to the United States, working and drifting primarily as a cowboy. He served in the army and soon began selling his sketches. In 1920 he married, and shortly after that, he had a brief period of study at Yale University, but that enrollment was short lived because he felt closed in by the environment and missed his wife Alice. During that time, he painted the occasional still life, which was atypical of him.

His writing career began when he sent in an essay, accompanied with illustrations, to the New York offices of Scribner's. His easy-going and casual style, with drawings, provided a combination that editor Maxwell Perkins liked. (Perkins also worked with Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and other notables)

James' pencil drawings were precise and depicted his own experiences as a cowboy. His first novel, 'Smoky', was introduced in 1926 and won the Newberry medal for literature from the American Library Association. He also produced an oil by the same name, again his most famous and recognized work. Two years later his first writing of "Bucking Horse Riders" was sold, and since then has never been out of print. His last book, "The American Cowboy" was written in 1942. He wrote and illustrated 23 books in all, with appeal to a wide audience. His art appeared in the pages of books and periodicals, as well as illustrating the works of other authors.

Will James spent his latter years at his home in Billings, Montana, and on his ranch, the "Rocking R Ranch", at Pryor Creek, Montana. During his lifetime, he was fortunate to watch his popularity grow, as he witnessed movies made from his books. Despite his popularity and success as a novelist and artist, James had a tragic life. He served a short prison term for rustling, experienced an unpleasant marriage, and had a severe alcohol dependency.

His life ended at an early age of 50 in 1942.

Biography from The Russell: Sale to Benefit the CM Russell Museum
According to the yarn Will James would later spin in Lone Cowboy: My Life Story (1930), he was born near Great Falls, Montana, where he was orphaned as a baby and adopted by a French trapper.  In actuality, James was born Joseph Dufault in Quebec, Canada, to comfortably middle-class parents.  When he was fifteen, he left Quebec for the Canadian West, appearing in Montana about 1910 with a new name, William R. James, and a legend to accompany it.  The new name was probably necessary to James' long-term career goals—how could a guy named "Dufault" be taken seriously as a cowboy? 

James henceforth worked for various ranches in the United States and Canada, captured wild horses in Nevada, entered rodeo competitions, and was a stunt rider for Hollywood westerns. His varied experiences on the range provide the basis for his popular cowboy novels, short stories, and later, his paintings and drawings.

Even though Lone Cowboy cannot be trusted as an accurate source for James' personal history, it nonetheless contains authentic vignettes of everyday life on the range.  The vignettes are accompanied by James' compelling illustrations, including a reproduction of this exceptionally good painting, I Was Handed Some Mighty Tough Ones.  The work provides a perfect example of what sculptor Harry Jackson later called James' "miraculous, energy-packed line."  The twisting figures of cowboy and bucker fairly leap from the canvas.  James' unusual juxtaposition of color—a smoky blue-gray hillside with a sunny patch of lime-green field—adds visual flare.

Paintings by James are held today in such collections as the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and the Gilcrease Museum.  The largest number of his works is represented by the Virginia Snook Collection at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana. Virginia Snook's parents, Earl and Eleanora, opened the Snook Art Company in downtown Billings in 1913.  The Snooks met James in 1926 and formed a friendship that would span decades.

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About  Will James

Born:  1892 - Quebec, Canada
Died:   1942 - near Billings, Montana
Known for:  book illustration, western horse -genre painting

Essays referring to
Will James

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