Pencil Sketches of Montana

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Pencil Sketches of Montana by Alfred Mathews

By AARON PARRETT

In the mid-sixties—1860s, that is—a restless young man with a talent for drawing walked out to Colorado from Ohio to see the West first-hand, especially the bustling activity happening on the mining frontier.

The fellow’s name was Alfred Mathews, and he had already made a name for himself and collected a following from having documented various Civil War battles. Both Grant and Sherman sang his praises, and his talent as an artist who could draw useful maps and capture the horrific imagery of the battlefield probably contributed to his  survival during the war.

In Colorado, he made enough drawings to produce a book, released in 1866, called Pencil Sketches of Colorado. If you happen to come across a copy at a yard sale, buy it: it’s worth about $40,000 nowadays. Following that book’s success, Mathews traveled northwest to the gold fields of Montana, where he continued to indulge his habits of walking and drawing.

In 1867, the artist covered a considerable swath of Montana in his meanderings and compiled another collection of drawings he published as a book the next year, this time called Pencil Sketches of Montana. Buy that book at the yard sale, too, if you see it: it’s worth at least $20,000.

Part of the reason that books like Mathews’ two collections are so expensive is they are rarely found intact—and that’s because 20th-century collectors found that they could make more money from dismantling the books and selling the individual prints than they could from the book.

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A collector pal of mine in Helena recently acquired a considerable number of the sketches from a print shop in New York and has kindly taken it upon himself to share the images with the public. After a debut show at the schoolhouse in Unionville, Mont., he has now moved it to Free Ceramics (650 Logan Street in Helena). The show will run from January 11 to March 9, with a special reception open to the public on February 16th (6-8 PM).

The collection represents about two-thirds of what would have been in the complete book, but what is especially remarkable about these images is that, after they had been taken from the book, someone hand-colored them (the original text was monochrome). As a result, these versions of the pencil sketches are unique and even more stunning.

Among the familiar scenes Montana viewers will recognize are sketches of the Wolf Creek Canyon, the city of Unionville, and Helena itself. Mathews was a compulsive traveler and covered an impressive amount of Montana terrain in his brief time, including a 90-mile float trip down the Missouri.

An issue of the Montana Post from October of 1867 makes reference to his presence in the area and advertises that his “Western Panorama” would be on display in Virginia City and later Deer Lodge.

Anyone interested in Montana history or nineteenth-century Western art will not want to miss this opportunity to see this unusual, hand-colored collection of Mathews’ pencil sketches. Visitors to the show at Free Ceramics will be able to order high-resolution facsimiles of the sketches at reasonable prices. MSN