Paxson’s paintings of early Montana return to Missoula County Courthouse

“Travelers Rest” by Edgar Paxson. (Courtesy of the Missoula Art Museum)

By Katie Klietz

After taking a four-year leave of absence during the Missoula County Courthouse renovation project, the historic Edgar S. Paxson paintings have been framed and reinstalled in the courthouse.

The iconic paintings were removed in 2012 as one of the final preparations for the renovation project. During the time of construction, the art was temporarily displayed at the Missoula Art Museum and later moved to secure storage.

In addition to being reinstalled, the murals gained dark custom frames from Burnich Frame and Molding and now have appropriate lighting, thanks to Dennis Wright with Maxus Consulting Engineers PC.

After renovating and repainting the historic courtroom, local painter Amanda Bielby was able to repaint decorative numerals under each painting that correspond with interpretative literature for visitors.

“At first I was headed with a Victorian design to go with architecture in the building, but after a meeting, it was obvious that the design should be a tribute to the Native American influence of the paintings,” Bielby said. “I just felt lucky to be able to get my eyes so close to the paintings and take a moment to study how they may have come together.”

The Courthouse contains eight murals by E.S. Paxson, which were finished in 1914. Edgar Samuel Paxson is best known for his painting of “Custer’s Last Stand,” finished in 1899. In 1906, he moved his studio to Missoula from Butte and in 1912 began a group of murals depicting early Montana history.

“I was able to work on the murals’ conservation reviews, documentation and research efforts during the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial,” said Jennifer Reifsneider, the registrar at the MAM. “Reframing the Paxson murals – literally and figuratively – always makes me feel part of a unique community and proud of how we collaborate and engage with our visual and cultural histories.”

As an added and wonderful surprise, the underpaintings were uncovered during the renovation process. According to the MAM, the underpaintings, now hung in the north stairwell between the second and third floors of the courthouse, depict wagon trains, an infrequent subject but in line with Paxson’s depictions of Indian trails and people in the landscape.

While the draftsmanship is strong, the coloration is only blocked in, using the characteristic light pastel colors that Paxson used as underpaint.

Paxson’s large-scale paintings depict some of the historic events that occurred in the area: Father Ravalli arriving at Fort Owen, the signing of the Hellgate Treaty, the Salish people leaving the Bitterroot Valley for the Flathead Reservation, and three paintings featuring the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The paintings capture the spirit of the time, a nostalgic yearning for the bygone days of the heroic West, rendered with Paxson’s typical painstaking attention to detail of costume and accoutrement.

This is not the first time that the Missoula County Commission has invested in the murals. In 1980, Commissioners Wilfred V. Thibodeau, Barbara Evans and Joseph Boyer signed a re-dedication proclamation declaring the week of April 21 as E.S. Paxson week.

April 25, Paxson’s birthday, would be recognized as Paxson Painting Appreciation and Dedication Day. A time lapse video of the reinstallation is available on the county website.