Delve into the life of Western artist Joe De Yong, a protégé of Charles Russell, in this detailed volume by William Reynolds.
“It’s said that up there riders never tire
And so I’ll bet that when that outfit’s day is done,
—and you look down, and see the settin’ sun
your crowd will gather round the fire for one long night of harmless fun.” —Excerpt from Friend Will, a poem Joe De Yong wrote in tribute to Will Rogers, published in Joe De Yong: A Life in the West
The name Charles Russell is synonymous with art and the West. The name Joe De Yong might not be as familiar to most people, but De Yong also was devoted to the West, and this volume by William Reynolds shines a light on his remarkable life.
De Yong was born in 1894 in the small town of Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. When he was 5, his family moved to Dewey, Oklahoma, where his father ran a general store. Living in Indian Territory sparked the boy’s imagination. He received a saddle for his 6th birthday, and the gift was a good fit, as he was enamored with everything related to cowboys. Although he went back to Webster Groves to attend school, he spent summers in Dewey, riding and seizing every opportunity to help at cattle roundups and brandings.
When De Yong was 10, he met Will Rogers at his grandmother’s house in St. Louis when the trick roper and cowboy humorist was in town for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. That encounter only furthered his preoccupation with all things Western. The same year, he first saw Russell’s art. And a few years later, the actor Tom Mix brought “a moving-picture troop” to make a film called Life on the Diamond-S Ranch, which was shot on the Horseshoe L Ranch where De Yong worked. He seemed destined for a cowboy’s life, whether it was on the ranch, in film or with art.
In 1913, the young man came down with cerebral meningitis. His rehabilitation was long and difficult, and the disease left him deaf. But it didn’t stop him from pursuing his goals. He wrote to Russell, who responded with a letter and sketch. They exchanged letters, and eventually De Yong and his parents moved to Montana, where he developed a friendship with Russell. In 1916 he began living with Charles and Nancy Russell, learning about art and helping in the studio. He spent about 10 years there, until Russell’s death in 1925. He remained close to the artist’s widow, but moved to Santa Barbara, California, and continued his career as an artist and illustrator. A chance meeting with an assistant to movie producer Cecil B. DeMille led to work in the film industry. De Yong worked on such movies as The Plainsman, Wells Fargo, Red River and Shane, in costume and prop design, and as a technical and historical advisor. He also wrote and illustrated articles and several covers for Western Horseman from 1949 to 1951.
It’s easy to get lost in this book, which mentions many of De Yong’s well-known friends, such as artists Edward Borein and writer Will James. Artists Joe Beeler and Vel Miller, who also had Western Horseman connections, were later close to De Yong and mentored by him. The book is filled with photos, illustrations, art, and significant letters to and from De Yong. Whether it’s devoured in one sitting or read piecemeal, it’s a valuable and essential volume on a man whose name should be familiar to anyone who loves Western art and culture.