Montana Winter, by Clark Hulings

Snowed Under

“Cowboys have an all-season job that has become iconic as the embodiment of rugged independence and integrity.”

Happy New Year! This week we’re visiting Montana in 1978, when winter was winter. In a state that boasts 2.5 head of cattle for each person, ranching has been a way of life since the mid 1850s. It’s not an easy business: the cost of feeding cows through the winter when they can’t eat grass, and managing the rights to the land itself, which are now in a tug-of-war between state and federal ownership—these are major entrepreneurial challenges for the ranchers. Cowboys have an all-season job that has become iconic in the US as the embodiment of rugged independence and integrity. We have Mexico to thank for the tradition, as the American cowboy of the 19th century came from the vaqueros that Northern Mexico inherited from Spain.

Weather the Storm

Hulings has accomplished a stunning feat here in the way he’s rendered the blanket of snow over the ground. The horizon is almost in total white-out with the suggestion of trees blurred by snow far away in the background—it’s one of the features that reveals that this painting is actually a watercolor. The snow is so enveloping that you can almost hear the quiet of the landscape and the crunch under the horses’ hooves. Many of the cows are contemplating the hay that has just been dropped off for them by the cowhand, and a couple of them are looking straight at us through the snowfall with that simple bovine curiosity. Two gorgeous draft horses have to lean hard and give everything to pull through the snow, while their driver seems to be relishing his job, sitting at a jaunty angle with his cowboy hat, and wearing his fur-lined jacket open as if he’s impervious to the cold. If you look carefully in the straw of the red cart or sledge, you’ll see the dog peeking out from what must be the only warm corner of the operation.

Cold Companions

A scene with people and animals working together, getting it done, is classic Hulings subject matter. Montana Winter is a unique version of this, for the way the figures are almost islands in the frozen landscape, and because Hulings rarely painted horses. He much preferred the plebeian donkey. These horses, though, are tough customers, and of course the astounding technical challenge of painting the scene and doing it with watercolor was so enticing to him that it overrode his aversion. Montana Winter joins some of Hulings’ best snow scenes, such Woodbearers of Chimayo featured in the collection at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington State; and the winner of the first Prix de West, Kaibab Trail-Winter, which remains at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. For cool year-round inspiration, Kaibab Trail-Winter is available to take home as an archival print, with more information here.

Elizabeth Hulings