Whether he is capturing a look between General Custer and a Sioux warrior or a mother watching her daughter ride into a rodeo arena, South Carolina artist John Hull finds the drama of the moment.
When Hull visited Billings in the late 1980s, former Yellowstone Art Museum curator Gordon McConnell took him for the ride of his life — a visit to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Hull wanted to see the ground where the battle was fought on June 25 and 26, 1876, because he’s spent a lifetime reading about it and imagining the battle.
“Growing up in the West, in Oregon, I think it’s hard to get away from history, particularly the history of the West that is tied up with the Indian wars,” Hull said in a recent interview with The Gazette. “I grew up with the great Paxton painting of the Battle of Little Bighorn. Trying to make my own version of that Paxton painting was part of my intention.”
Seduction of challenge
Hull, 62, said Edgar Paxton’s painting of the battle, which was on the cover of one of his favorite books when he was a kid, “Indian Wars,” helped inspire him to be an artist. Years later Hull was able to see Paxton’s painting on display at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyo.
Hull was seduced by the challenge of painting the battle even though it has been depicted by hundreds of artists, most notably Paxton, J.K. Ralston, and Charles M. Russell.
The sketches Hull made based on his visit to the battlefield with McConnell became a 52 by 32-inch acrylic painting,
“Last Stand: Study.” He donated the work to the YAM in 1995 for its permanent collection. That work is on display in the YAM’s Visible Vault through July 31. The full final painting, which measures 96 by 60 inches, was purchased by Land’s End for display in its corporate office in Dodgeville, Wis.
McConnell credits Hull with taking a fresh look at the battle, studying photographs, and looking at uniforms, weapons and American Indian regalia to accurately depict the details.
Inspired by literature
At the time Hull painted “Custer’s Last Stand,” he was teaching at Yale University and had access to the Peabody Museum collection, which included specific items of 1870s Lakota clothing and weapons. Hull now teaches at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
A Marine veteran, Hull has been a lifelong student of military history. He immersed himself in literature about the Little Bighorn, and is especially fond of Evan S. Conell’s Custer book, “Son of the Morning Star.”
There are more figures in the full painting than in the study, and Custer, who is on the ground dead with other cavalrymen leaning over him in the study, is alive and standing with his gun drawn. But a Sioux warrior has his pistol pointed right at Custer’s chest and is charging toward him on a horse.
Losing an ear
A cavalryman in the foreground of the study has fallen with his horse and the U.S. flag he was carrying is lying on the ground. In the full painting, the flag is not there and a Sioux warrior is using a knife to cut off the cavalryman’s ear.
Crazy Horse is at top left in both paintings, with one hand raised and a battle cry on his lips. He is covered in white dots, which he painted on his torso because he had a vision the night before of being in a hailstorm.
Hull said he borrowed stylistically a horse from a Russell painting, and a calvalryman who is falling backward was inspired by a photograph of the Spanish Civil War by Frank Capra.
When YAM staff members looked over the painting Friday, McConnell pointed out the white forehead of one hatless cavalryman because he’d lost his hat in the battle and his forehead had likely never been exposed to the sun.
It’s that attention to detail and the focus on human emotion that sets Hull’s work apart from the other artists who have painted the Battle of the Little Bighorn, McConnell said.
“This is painted with acrylic which makes it less translucent but it allows the artist to be more spontaneous. The color is well observed and this is more action packed than most of John’s work.”
Passion and suffering
When the full painting was completed in the early 1990s, it was exhibited at the YAM, along with other works by Hull. In a lecture Hull presented at the opening, he said he attempted to interpret the passion and the gravity of suffering at the battle. Hull said he attempts to portray “the gesture inside the dilemma of the human heart” in his work.
“What I sought to describe were ordinary men, at grips with contradictions, vulnerable to retribution, privation and death,” Hull said.
Robyn Peterson, executive director of the YAM, said Hull disproves the mistaken, but frequently encountered viewpoint, that contemporary artists no longer create epic historical paintings.
“In fact, re-envisionings of history or retellings that place historic events into more contemporary contexts are stock-in-trade for many contemporary artists.”
Peterson said she appreciates that Hull does not always focus on glorious images of the West, but rather looks for everyday moments that ordinary people can relate to.
Hull’s six works that are on exhibit at Catherine Louisa Gallery, 118 N. Broadway, show the scenes behind the rodeo arena. Hull said he just returned to South Carolina after spending the spring in Cody, sketching scenes at the Cody Night Rodeo. He has also started a series of paintings of professional wrestlers since his son, Isaac, began competing as a professional wrestler.
“I make paintings about how people live and how they interact with one another. The Buffalo Bill just bought one of the rodeo paintings I did at the Ucross. In the painting, the rodeo is to the right and you see all of the ropers waiting to go on. That’s what interests me. Everybody else is looking into the ring and I’m looking off to the corner.”
Catherine Louisa Eithier said Hull’s paintings are especially popular with the rodeo crowd because they understand those moments Hull paints that happen outside the arena.
“It feels like you’re watching an intimate moment,” Eithier said.