It was the job of the century – for which there had been no formal application. But when Irving R. Bacon caught the eye of two of America’s most infamous and dynamic personalities, he responded to their call. Irving Bacon’s artistic talent was just such an attraction to both symbols of Americana: the celebrated “Wild West” hero Colonel (Buffalo Bill) Cody and his future-world counterpart of the new industrial age, Henry Ford. The genre artist – whose talent for Western scenes is said to have rivaled that of Remington and Russell – would be the unwitting courier handing off that baton between the two icons.
No doubt then that Irving Bacon’s experiences would be truly remarkable – and he recorded them not only in paint, but also in photographs and motion pictures. Henry Ford was first introduced to Bacon in 1898, giving the artist an exhilarating ride in his new automobile (which Bacon described as a very loud buggy on bike wheels) and then again in 1910 when Ford took his son Edsel – who had an interest in art – to Bacon’s studio to purchase a painting. Subsequently, Bacon was given access to use Ford’s property as a backdrop for his landscape paintings. Having trained earlier with Joseph Gies at the Detroit Museum’s Art School and New York’s Chase School of Art, Bacon would study for several years in Munich. Returning from Germany, Ford was fascinated at Bacon’s impression of the atmosphere in wartime Europe. Henry enjoyed Bacon’s cartoons, as the artist had been an illustrator for several publications including the Detroit Evening News, the Detroit Free Press, Harper’s Weekly and McClure’s. Ford hired him in 1915 to be his personal artist and Bacon initially produced political cartoons for the Ford Times and later illustrations for The Dearborn Independent.
Bacon worked for Ford Motor Company and the Edison Institute, while continuing to paint portraits of the Ford family and friends including such luminaries as Mark Twain and George Washington Carver. He would eventually become head of the Ford Motor Company’s Motion Picture Department, which was the world’s largest producer of motion pictures in the 1920s and recorded some momentous occasions. One such moment came when the automobile magnet met Charles Lindbergh at Ford Airport after his non-stop flight to Paris. Bacon was there to capture in photographs and moving pictures Henry Ford’s historic first plane ride with Lindbergh in his “Spirit of St. Louis.”** Bacon would work for Henry for over thirty years, retiring in 1948.
Commissioned by Buffalo Bill for several paintings, Bacon was invited to the Western icon’s Wyoming ranch for hunting excursions as well as traveling with him and his troupe in his Wild West show. Now one of these Western paintings, rarely found outside of museums, has surfaced for auction in Detroit. The striking painting entitled “A Duel Between the Lines” depicts Buffalo Bill Cody in his renowned 1876 clash with the Cheyenne chief Yellow Hair (Yellow Hand), infamously touted as “The First Scalp for Custer,” a scene that Cody would feature in his Wild West exhibitions and one that indeed seemed to have left an indelible mark on him. Noting plans to paint the scene, Cody explained in a 1903 letter to Bacon that although he didn’t believe in scalping, he had wanted revenge for the loss of his friend General Custer at The Battle of the Little Bighorn. Mentioning Irving Bacon in another letter* dated 1911, (the year the painting was completed), Cody would lament that, “… The old Wild West is fast disappearing and the young artists will have it only in history.”
Formerly in the Grosse Pointe collection of Hildegard DeGrimme, the painting is scheduled to go to auction at Detroit’s DuMouchelle Galleries on Sunday, Dec. 14. Other works in the sale by notable American artists include: William R. Leigh, Robert S. Duncanson, Charles Henry Gifford, Robert Hopkin, Charles Paul Gruppe, Andre Gisson, Douglas Arthur Teed and Homer Dodge Martin. For more information, call 313-963-6255 or view online at www.auctiondetroit.com.
*From the manuscript collection at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.
**From Reminiscences of Mr. Irving R. Bacon from the Ford Motor Company Archives Oral History.
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