The cowboy is more than a figure of the West-he’s an American archetype, a symbol of freedom, of masculinity, of the taming of nature and the settlement of frontiers. As a cowboy himself, John Edward Borein (1872-1945) knew his subjects intimately, and his paintings convey that deep familiarity. In today’s political climate, of course, the cowboy has new associations, some less innocent, perhaps, than in days of old. Cowboys and Indians aside, consider the paintings now on display at the Historical Museum as a series of compositions, a set of arranged colors and brushstrokes, and what you have is a set of utterly lovely paintings.
To begin, it is hard to resist watercolors, and this show consists of almost nothing but watercolors or watercolor and gouaches. The delectable puddling, the glowing transparency, all the pleasures a master watercolorist has to offer are here on display. This freshness of vision, this delicacy of touch carries over into the few oils in the show as well. As a colorist, Borein is thoughtful and varied. The robin’s-egg turquoise sky, though it appears often, never becomes cloying, and the works range from large, ambitious paintings with a wide range of contrasting tones and values, such as “Los Rancheros Visitadores,” to smaller works, like “Trail Drive,” with an almost monochromatic subtlety.
Borein is also impressive for his ability to create a sense of motion within an image, such as in “Buffalo Hunt,” which depicts a stampede, or in “The Chase,” which depicts a steer, a rider, and the lariat that hangs in the air, just moments before it binds them together. In this respect, the cowboy painter would hardly suffer in a comparison with Degas.
As paintings, these are seductive ones. Given that most of them belong to private collections, they are more than worth a look-whether or not you side with the cowboys.