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Early American Paintings · James D. Smillie

James D. Smillie's "Rough Sport In The Yosemite"

One of the high points in James David Smillie’s career came when he was commissioned to travel to California to both write and illustrate a chapter on the Yosemite Valley for William Cullen Bryant's monumental Picturesque America, which became one of the most popular illustrated books of the period. Smillie arrived just two years after the driving of the last spike of the Transcontinental Railroad, connecting our Nation from East to West.

While at Yosemite, Smillie witnessed a striking horse race that would become one of his signature subjects for the next two decades. He illustrated it in Picturesque America and described it in detail in his chapter:

"One Sunday morning I strolled to the upper end of the valley; a quiet like that of languor filled the air; the roar of the Yosemite Fall had died out, and now but a slender stream down the face of the cliff marked its place. In the hush I walked under the pine-trees, whose pendulous branches and long, tremulous needles vibrated into an Aeolian melody upon the slightest provocation; a scarcely perceptible breeze brought whispers, to be caught only by the attentive ear; that swelled through faultless crescendos into volumes of harmony, rich and deep, yet ever sounding strangely far away. From the shadows and music out to the sunlighted meadow was but a step. At the other extremity of the open space, four or five hundred yards away, was a group of men. Drawing nearer, it was plainly to be seen that they were intent upon the preliminaries of a horse-race. There were Indians, Chinamen, Mexicans, negroes, and very dark-colored specimens of white men. There was a confusion of tongues, through which came the clear ring of clinking gold and silver coin, for all were betting—many of them their last dollar. Several horses were getting ready for the race; the favorites were a sorrel and a roan, or ‘blue horse;’ all were very ordinary animals, and without the slightest training. There were no saddles; the riders, stripped of all superfluous clothing, bareheaded and barefooted, rode with only a sheepskin or a bit of blanket under them; over the drawn-up knees around the horse’s body a surcingle was tightly drawn, binding horse and rider into one. Judges, starters, and umpires, were selected and positions taken. The word was given; the horses plunged, started, ‘bucked;’ again they started; again the sorrel bucked. An unlimited amount of profanity expressed the impatience of the crowd. The ‘blue horse’ was now largely the favorite.

At last they came—a cloud of dust, rattling hoofs, and frantic riders playing their whips right and left over the struggling brutes under them; on they came; the squatting crowd sprang to their feet, and up went one simultaneous yell; on they came, the crowd capering, screaming, and ‘hollerin’, like so many madmen—all alike infected, the stoical Indian as well as the mercurial Mexican. The ‘blue horse’ led, and, in a cloud of dust, all dashed by. It was a whirlpool of excitement, the stake being the vortex. Round and round they went; shouts, laughter, and profanity—one wild, incoherent Babel —losers and winner alike indistinguishable. Their hot temperaments found the excitement they craved, and the losers were rewarded in its drunkenness."

The painting documents the rich ethnic and cultural heritage of Early California. The Spanish-inspired surcingle, used here as a knee saddle, is documented both artistically and in the description within the text. With such a rich inclusion of an event such as a horse race, Smillie stands out from his fellow illustrators who focused on the grandeur of Nature's landscape rather than events inspired by Man.

Smillie was likely aware of Eadweard Muybridge's photography revealing the fact that a galloping horse did indeed have all four feet off the ground simultaneously. In fact, Smillie visited Muybridge's San Francisco studio during his 1871 trip to the West, and even acquired some of his photographs.

"Due to the deftness of Muybridge's photography, in 1872 his financially supportive well-to-do friend, Leland Stanford, the Governor of California, commissioned him to settle the galloping horse debate. Muybridge photographed Leland's horse Occident in a series of successive images. After experimenting with multiple cameras, shutters, and elementary time-release techniques, Muybridge caught the horse galloping at a shutter speed of less than the two-thousandth part of a second. The images of Occident clearly dashing forward with all four legs off the ground unleashed a newfound enthusiasm for the potential of photography to reveal nature's secrets."

[New York Institute of Photography]

Indeed, Smillie's series of etchings and watercolors of this subject were widely seen by not only the public readership of the books, but also by many important (or soon to be important) artists of the period.

"Muybridge's photographs, based on his work at the University of Pennsylvania in 1883-85, were published in 1887 in eleven volumes; earlier photographs of horses had been available since 1878. These photographs had an electrifying effect... Earlier on the field with such sensationally energetic subjects was James D. Smillie, whose Scrub Race on the Western Plain was a major success at the watercolor exhibition of 1876. Using the same device of horsemen galloping full tilt toward the viewer, this composition was repeated by Smillie in variants, such as Rough Sport in the Yosemite (MFA, Boston ) of 1883, probably known to both Eakins and Remington."

[Thomas Eakins Rediscovered, Charles Bregler's Collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Kathleen A. Foster; 1997; Yale University, p.279]

The painting depicts a view from the valley floor, from the Southeast portion of Leidig Meadow, looking South/Southwest toward Sentinel Rock.



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All images © Joel B. Garzoli Fine Art 2014