John Noble: Wichita's artist abroad

John Noble: Wichita's artist abroad

John Noble working at the easel in his atelier in Trepied, France, circa 1910. This studio was recreated in 2010 at Staten Island's Snug Harbor Cultural Center using many of the actual items pictured here. Source: Noble Maritime Collection

Wichita has long been fortunate in its strong and vibrant connection to the arts, and one of its earliest figures was John Noble, Jr. Born in our fair city in 1874 to English immigrant parents, Noble would later claim (falsely) to be "the first white child born in Wichita." It was but one of many fabrications in the self-made mythos of the man who dubbed himself "Wichita Bill."

So thoroughly did Noble muddy the waters of his personal history with fable that it is difficult at the remove of a century to separate truth from fiction. It is most likely true that he spent a fair portion of his youth on an Osage Indian Reservation; it is a matter of fact that he quit his formal public schooling after the eighth grade. He worked as a shepherd and earned extra money as an artist, drawing scenes of the cowboy life. By the end of his teens he was studying at the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts, where he sharpened his painting skills.

After traveling the country working for various newspapers as an artist, photographer and cartoonist, Noble returned to Wichita in the late 1890s. He and photographer Harry Pottenger opened a studio; Pottenger would take photographs and Noble would paint pastel portraits from them. During this period he painted the salacious "Cleopatra at the Bath," famously damaged in a hail of stones thrown by Carrie Nation in a temperance raid on the Carey Hotel (now Eaton Place) Saloon in 1900.

As the century turned, Noble, like many American artists, was drawn to the buzz of artistic innovation occurring at the time in France. In 1903, at nearly 30 years of age, he set sail for Europe and enrolled in Paris' Academie Julian under the tutelage of Jean-Paul Laurens, one of the last exemplars of the traditional French Academic style.

No sooner had he set foot on foreign soil than did Noble take on the exaggerated Wild Western persona of "Wichita Bill," habitually wearing a five-gallon Stetson cowboy hat with a rattlesnake necktie and regaling wide-eyed Francs with tales of cowboys and Indians on the untamed plains of the Great American Southwest. At an exhibition in Paris he showed up on horseback and rode through the salon, thrilling and scandalizing the audience.

While at the Academie Julian he became close drinking buddies with fellow American artists George Luks and Richard E. Miller; on a team with Luks he is reputed to have played the first organized game of baseball in Paris. By 1905 he was spending his summer months in Brittany, and began to develop a reputation for his paintings of the grey workhorses of the region. These works sold well enough to finance further study at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.

In 1909 Noble married Amelia Peiche of Strasbourg; the following year he set up an atelier in the art colony at Trepied and produced many works that sold well in France and England. More and more, Noble became entranced with light and attempted to represent it in his paintings, putting all other considerations aside. He befriended the African-American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, who had left the prejudice of the States for a more dignified life as an artist in France; Noble was a great admirer of Tanner's mastery of luminescence in oil and drew inspiration from his mystical paintings. Noble began piling on more layers of paint in what would become a lifelong chase after light.

But his other lifelong pursuit, drinking, constantly threatened to snuff out that light. Noble habitually destroyed his paintings, sometimes even going so far as to buy them back from collectors who had purchased them in order to smash them. He turned away buyers with cash in hand, talking them out of spending their money on his works.

At the outbreak of World War I, Noble relocated with his wife and two children, John and Towanda, to England. Noble, still famous as "Wichita Bill," increasingly turned to his youth on the plains for his subject matter, painting prairie scenes and buffalo. The time he spent near the sea in Europe put him in mind of the vast seas of tallgrass in Kansas and Oklahoma, and he wrote, "There's not much difference between the prairie and the ocean — that is, the prairie I used to know. I began to feel that vastness, the bulk, the overwhelming power of the prairie is the same in its immensity as the sea — only the sea is changeless, and the plains, as I knew, were passing."

Noble moved his family to Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1919. There he made friends with Eugene O'Neill and John Dos Passos, and he helped establish the Provincetown Art Association. In 1922 the Nobles moved one more time, to New York City. That same year, John Noble won the Salmagundi Purchase Prize, and had a well-received solo exhibition at the Rehn Galleries. In 1924 he won the W.A. Clark Prize, and in 1925 was the subject of another highly-regarded solo show at the Milch Galleries. He corresponded regularly with Wichita artist C.A. Seward in helping to establish the Wichita Art Association, forging connections between that nascent organization and important artists of the day. He was at the height of his fame, yet descending further into the depths of drink and despair.

In 1934, Noble died in New York City's Bellevue Hospital of an overdose of paraldehyde, a drug used to treat alcoholism. His son, John A. Noble, emerged from his father's shadow and became a notable artist in his own right; he founded the well-known Noble Maritime Collection at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island, New York.

"Wichita Bill" was immortalized in the 1949 biographical novel The Passionate Journey by Irving Stone, author of biographies on Van Gogh (Lust for Life) and Michelangelo (The Agony and the Ecstasy).

Perhaps no better eulogy of Noble exists than the memories of him recorded in Artist in Manhattan, the memoir of his friend and fellow artist Jerome Myers, who knew him in his New York years. Among his fond recollections of Noble, Myers remembers the man most in terms of his inner conflict: "John's violent encounters at the Salmagundi Club are written large in the memory of that institution — outbursts which were impelled by a fanatic devotion to art. At their dinner, he yanked off the table cloth, carrying all the dishes with it — an indirect though forcible criticism of Salmagundi's art. Towards the end, a tragic brooding came over him. So great was the interior struggle between the John Noble who once fought off five policemen and the artist who painted Provincetown bathed in moonlight, that at last it wore away his resistance. Pathetically, desperately, he grasped at the grand illusion of art that was his life. He truly died for a cause — and that cause was the art of John Noble."