Friday Art: The Pony Express by Frank Tenney Johnson (1924)

So the other day when I had some free time, I dropped into one of my more preferred dumpy thrift stores and came up with a copy of The Searchers: Making of An American Classic, which looks like it’ll be an interesting read for a buck and a half. Granted, most of it is not about the making of the film (one of my favorite old westerns) but about the true history story that inspired the film: the Comanche kidnapping of Cynthia Parker and how she became one of their tribe, becoming a wife and mother, including a son who became a Comanche chieftain before her Uncle found her after years of searching & took her back against her will.

The film takes that set-up, with Natalie Wood kidnapped and Uncle John Wayne searchin’ and searchin’, while giving us John Ford’s version of the settlement of the west and what sorts of bigotries and barbarities cleared the way for what is presumably a more civilized nation.

So I thought I’d offer one of the kind of American western paintings that inspired a lot of Ford’s imagery – in terms of landscape, character and even lighting. Frank Tenney Johnson’s Pony Express gives us a wonderful night time view of the western wilderness, with a set of mail riders departing from a very lonely looking stone outpost, the kind that’d turn up as a safe stopover for Ford’s Stagecoach passengers, or contain some creepy would-be bushwhackers like Futterman’s general store in The Searchers.

Johnson was mostly known for works like this, where he painted cowboys by moonlight. He gives us a wonderful cloudy moonlit sky against the weak competition of the glowing lamps from inside the outpost. I love the reflection of moonlight off the body of the big brown and white horse in the lead, too.

WHADDYA WANT ME TO DO, SPELL IT OUT FOR YA? DRAW YA A PICTURE? DON’T EVER ASK ME ABOUT IT AGAIN!

That’ll be the day.

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