Art of the American West

E.S. (Edgar Samuel) Paxson

American/Montana (1852-1919)


ES PaxsonEdgar Samuel Paxson arrived in Montana in 1877, the year after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Paxson’s interest in the battle would become a defining element in his artistic career, culminating in his major work, Custer’s Last Stand, now in the collections of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Paxson was born in East Hamburg, New York, near Buffalo, on April 25, 1852. His father, William Hamilton Paxson, had a carriage-building business. After attending the Friends’ Institute school, Edgar entered his father’s business, painting carriages and signs. His experience as a sign painter probably introduced him to skills he would later develop as an artist, but there is no evidence that Edgar Paxson received formal art training at this time. In 1874 he married Laura Johnson, and the following year he set out for the West.

In the years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Paxson gathered information with the idea of portraying the famous battle between the Army soldiers, led by Lt. Col. George A. Custer, and Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.According to the biography written by his great-grandson, Paxson interviewed Native Americans who had been in the battle, such as Gall (Lakota) and Two Moon (Tsistsistas), and some ninety-six soldiers from the related campaign. His primary source was General E.S. Godfrey, who had been a lieutenant with Captain Frederick Benteen’s contingent and who had been one of the first to view the site after the battle. Actual work on the canvas, which measured six feet by nine feet, probably began in 1895.

Having been elected to membership in the Society of Associated Arts, Paxson traveled to Chicago and exhibited his paintings in the organization’s annual exhibition in 1903. He spent at least seven weeks in the city, where he visited several museums and spent time at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Although he seems to have been primarily self-taught as an artist, he might have had some instruction in Chicago and he took opportunities to learn by looking at the works of other artists.

Paxson exhibited paintings at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, and the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland in 1905, as well as other venues outside Montana. He moved to Missoula, Montana in 1906. In 1911 he was commissioned to paint six scenes of Montana history for the Senate chambers at the Montana Capitol in Helena. The following year, he was commissioned to execute eight paintings for the Missoula County Courthouse.