Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939) Alphonzo Bell 32 x 40in Painted in 1928.

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Lot 47
Frank Tenney Johnson
Alphonzo Bell 32 x 40in Painted in 1928.

Sold for US$ 348,500 inc. premium
Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939)
Alphonzo Bell
signed and dated 'F. Tenney Johnson 1928' (lower left)
oil on canvas
32 x 40in
Painted in 1928.


  • Provenance
    The artist.
    Stendahl Galleries, Los Angeles, California, commissioned by the sitter Alphonzo E. Bell Sr., 1928.
    Sale, Altermann & Morris Galleries, Dallas, Texas, May 18, 1996, lot 68.
    (probably) Acquired by the late owner from the above.

    Art Sales Ledger, 1928-1936, MS 12.05.08, Frank Tenney Johnson Collection, McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, p. 23.
    S.H. McGarry, Honoring The Western Tradition: The L.D. "Brink" Brinkman Collection, Kerrville, Texas, 2003, p. 16, illustrated.

    We wish to thank Melissa Webster Speidel for her kind assistance in cataloging the lot. This painting will be included in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the artist's oil paintings.

    Frank Tenney Johnson was a master of myth-making, both in his life and art. While he is considered by many as following in the footsteps of Frederic Remington and Charles Marion Russell, his primary biographer Harold McCracken believed that he surpassed them by adding "a strong aesthetic beauty" to his paintings.1 Johnson's works are immediately arresting and recognizable for the romance with which he depicts solitude on the Western range.

    Johnson was born and raised in Iowa on a humble prairie farm a stone's throw from the historic Overland Trail. Watching the stagecoaches pass by sparked his imagination and fueled his fascination with the West. His interest in art took hold at the age of fourteen, when his family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In a big city for the first time, he was inspired by visits to the Layton Art Gallery, Milwaukee's first public art museum, and resolved to become an artist. As a self-motivated and enterprising young man, he dropped out of school to apprentice under two German expatriate artists who shaped his work in different ways. From Frederick William Heine (1845-1921), he gained a strong technical background and exposure to commercial art-making, and from Richard Lorenz (1858-1915), he found a champion of Western subjects and a kindred spirit.

    By 1895, at the age of twenty-one, the allure of New York City proved irresistible. Johnson traveled to New York for the first time and trained at the Art Students League under John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902). Though it was a short five-month stint, it was an auspicious start to his artistic career in New York. He pursued additional training under the National Academicians Robert Henri (1865-1929) and William Merritt Chase (1849-1910) and sought work as a commercial illustrator to make ends meet. In 1903, through a fortuitous commission for the Winchester rifle company, he landed a major commission with Field & Stream magazine that enabled him to travel extensively through the West.2 On this seminal trip, Johnson visited cattle ranches in Colorado and Indian pueblos in the Southwest, completely 'embedding' in the local culture and understanding the values and habits of his subjects first-hand. Here, he found the heroic cowboy archetype that would inspire his work for nearly four decades.

    Johnson returned to Manhattan in 1904 to make good on his Field & Stream commission. Commercial success ensued with magazine commissions from Cosmopolitan, Harper's Monthly, Harper's Weekly, and Metropolitan Magazine among others. Book cover commissions by Western pulp novelists such as Zane Grey added to his growing popularity.

    In 1912 and 1918, Johnson felt the pull of the West again, traveling further out to the Plains states, the West coast, and Southwest.3 McCracken cites the financial security that commercial illustration afforded and an increase in dealer representation that spurred Johnson toward easel painting.4 Southern California particularly appealed to Johnson and his wife Vinnie, and by 1922, they began to envision a life out West.

    Johnson's success in Los Angeles was closely tied to the rise of the movie industry in the 1920s. According to McCracken, Johnson was a tall, handsome, and affable man, and the ease with which he could move between ranchers, artists and wealthy businessmen alike served him very well in the fluid social circles that still characterize Los Angeles today. In addition to his own magnetism, he had the powerful backing of Stendahl Galleries, the preeminent art dealer in the region. McCracken notes that "the prominent displaying and enthusiastic endorsement" of Johnson's paintings "created considerable interest among collectors in the area." Stendahl Galleries counted Hollywood heavyweights such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and prominent businessmen such as William Randolph Hearst, among its clients.

    The present work depicts the oil magnate, rancher, and real estate developer Alphonzo E. Bell Sr. (1875-1947), best-known today as the founder of the Bel-Air community. Bell Sr. was born into a family of pioneer farmers who became enterprising businessmen—his father and uncle were both early California settlers, founding the city of Bell and the First National Bank of Los Angeles, respectively. He became "one of the wealthiest men in California following the discovery of oil on his Santa Fe Springs ranch in 1921...and was soon one of the largest landowners in Southern California, promoting and developing such exclusive areas as Bel-Air, the Bel-Air Bay Club, the Bel-Air Country Club, Castellammare [Pacific Palisades], Miramar, and Eastridge."5

    Growing up on a farm, Bell Sr. learned to ride horses from a young age. He excelled in school and enrolled at Occidental Academy (now Occidental College) at the age of thirteen.6 Upon graduation, he inherited approximately 110 acres of land near Bell Station from his uncle, which would decide his fate. He became a full-time landowner and worked with his father on land management, irrigation, and further land acquisitions. It was through drilling for water at his Santa Fe Springs ranch that he first suspected an oil field underneath. After fifteen years of negotiating with the Union Oil Company to drill, he struck 'black gold' in dramatic fashion—

    "The drill was again set in motion, but after only five feet of progress, the workmen were greeted by a sudden rush of mud and a mighty roar of gas heralding the big strike of Santa Fe Springs. Claude Wayne [Bell Sr.'s tennis friend] recalls that Bell telephoned him at four in the morning, telling him that if he wanted to see something he ought to get over there in a hurry. Bell was jubilant, to say the least. He had on a corduroy outfit and a big sombrero, and was spattered with oil from head to toe." 7

    He eventually established the Alphonzo E. Bell Corporation (later Bell Petroleum Company) which oversaw various oil drilling and refinery operations.8

    Oil enabled him to acquire and develop more real estate, and in 1923, he purchased 1,760 acres which became Bel-Air. At the height of his wealth in the 1920s, he resided at a spectacular estate in Bel-Air called Capo di Monte, comprised of 40-rooms decorated with antiques and a terraced garden meant to evoke the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Bells "never had less than six cars, which always included two Rolls Royces, and at various times a Pierce Arrow, a Phaeton, and a Packard." He was also an accomplished horseman, acquiring over forty horses and showing his thoroughbreds across the country, as well as riding competitively.9

    Bell Sr. is depicted on his palomino horse at his Bar Bell Ranch in Colorado. While it is unknown how Bell Sr. became acquainted with the artist, Johnson was well-regarded by this time for being a horseman's painter. Johnson shared a love of horses, noting that "their keenness and reactions seem to be just as it is with some men...A fine horse is something special to the eye of a horseman; and those are the kind I like to paint." 10

    Bar Bell was purchased — in the same year as the present equestrian portrait — as part of an 8,000 acre acquisition of the entire White River Valley. This "served as his own private national park" for raising cattle, silver fox fur, and trout, as well as sport hunting.11 Bell Sr. also commissioned a portrait of his daughter Elizabeth on her pony 'Yampa' at Bar Bell, and it is likely that both were commissioned to commemorate this country retreat.

    The present work exhibits all the trademarks of Johnson's mature style. A single cowboy (Bell Sr.) and his horse are shown in a three-quarter pose, silhouetted in the landscape, with his face cast in an introspective shadow. Johnson's skill with nocturnes is most notable, and his 'moonlight technique' distinguished him in his day. To achieve this effect, he not only mixed his own colors but was reported to have prepared a special gesso with vermillion for his support that was allowed to cure for a year.12 Johnson felt that this was necessary for good paint adhesion and "luminosity to the finished work." 13

    Long before Leonard McCombe published his iconic photographs in Life Magazine of the Texas cowboy who would become the inspiration for the Marlboro Man, Johnson photographed life on a working ranch. Photography was also an important part of his artistic process, and over 6,000 of his prints and negatives are currently housed in the Frank Tenney Johnson Collection in the McCracken Research Library at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.14 According to McCracken, Johnson would incorporate aspects of his photographs or color sketches to compose an easel painting, selecting "a mountain background that had impressed him, and a photo of a cowboy or Indian made at some entirely different location, or the picture might be conceived entirely from memory.'15 In the present work, the background bears a similarity to that depicted in On the Drive, 1938, with its winding stream and paired watering steer, which may point to this practice.16

    1 Harold McCracken, The Frank Tenney Johnson Book: A Master Painter of The Old West, New York, 1974, p. 11.
    2 Ibid, 34.
    3 Ibid, 107, 114.
    4 Ibid, 121.
    5 John O. Pohlmann, Alphonzo E. Bell: A Biography: Part I, Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 3, September 1964, p. 197.
    6 Ibid, 203.
    7 Ibid, 214.
    8 Alphonzo E. Bell, Jr. The Bel Air Kid: Autobiography of a Life in California, Victoria, 2002, p. 41.
    9 John O. Pohlmann, Alphonzo E. Bell: A Biography: Part II, Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 4, December 1964, pp. 316-317.
    10 McCracken, 142.
    11 Pohlmann, 320.
    12 McCracken, 142.
    13 Ibid.
    14 Finding Guide, Frank Tenney Johnson Collection, MS 12, McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
    15 McCracken, 129.
    16 On the Drive was sold at Bonhams San Francisco, California and American Paintings, June 8, 2004, sale 13014, lot 4126.
Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939) Alphonzo Bell 32 x 40in Painted in 1928.
Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939) Alphonzo Bell 32 x 40in Painted in 1928.
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