FRITZ WILHELM WINOLD REISS (1886–1953)
“Montana Red” Shy, about 1931
Pastel on Whatman board, 39 x 26 in.
Signed (at lower left): WINOLD / REISS
RECORDED: Jeffrey C. Stewart, Winold Reiss: An Illustrated Checklist of His Portraits [Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, 1990], p. 34 illus.
EXHIBITED: Squibb Building Art Galleries, New York, January 10–February 1, 1935, no. 64 // Hockaday Museum of Art, Kalispell, Montana, June 2–October 18, 2005, Winold Reiss: Artist for the Great Northern // Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, April 12–June 8, 2018, Winold Reiss will not be classified, pp. 24, 25 illus. in color
EX COLL.: the artist; to his estate, 1953 until the present
Although the vast majority of Reiss’s portrait subjects in the West were Native Americans, painted to satisfy his railroad sponsors as well as his own interests, he was always alert to the opportunity to record unusual characters. And so we come to “Montana Red,” whose family surname was, improbably enough, “Shy.” Reiss himself described the circumstances of this portrait:
And there is Montana Red who appears by first approach fierce and dangerous. A man trained from early youth to handle a gun and consider it his best and only friend, Red is quite a character in present Montana and has quite a few daring escapades to his credit. He was born in Texas in the ‘80s. When he was a lad of thirteen he drove some long horn cattle for the Bridle Bit outfit from Texas to Wyoming and landed afterwards in Montana. The country appealed to him. He loved the rolling prairies with the blue rockies bordering them on the east and the wild untamed life of settlers and Indians [sic]. Is it surprising that he rustled cattle, that he was shot in the knee and for three days layed [sic] helpless in the prairies until somebody found him. When told afterwards that he would never be able to move his knee again he had it set in a bent position so that he would still be able to ride. That is Red, daring courageous, a horse and the wide open spaces. A man from Glacier Park village talked behind his back [and] offended him, so Red rode his horse into Mikes Place, the dance hall, and shot up the town. It sounds like a movie but it happens to be true. Everybody who knows Red can understand it. I wanted Red to pose for me. They told me where he lives. One early morning I went there. A tiny little hut, I knocked, the door opened—a bed a stove a chair, no room to move. A dead chicken on the footend [sic] of the bed some coffee steaming on the stove. No wonder – Reds [sic] castle big enough for sleeping, his living room is the open. Red posed for me, I talked to him and strange enough I saw more than his fierce appearance. I saw a look in his eye, so blue and boylike [sic], so young and unspoiled that it thrilled me. There it was again—the realization—the West and his [sic] man [sic] and the fine women who have born and raise them—ironlike truthful and unspoiled wonderful America (transcript from a handwritten text in the archives of The Reiss Partnership).
Reiss’s portrait captures the complexity of the man. He does indeed look fierce, and his hand is on his pistol. But he does not look mean. In the background, Reiss has faintly painted a sketch of the main street of Glacier Park Village. We see Mike’s Dance Hall, with the word faintly over the door “Saloon.” A horse is tied up outside. Winold Reiss was neither anthropologist nor politician. He was an artist. But his portraits unfailingly conveyed his admiring and empathetic respect for his subjects and for the culture that was their contribution to the diversity of the human species.