Back to the Artist Page

R. Farrington Elwell Biography

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Robert Farrington Elwell became one of the better-known late 19th and early 20th Century illustrators, painters and sculptors of western subjects.  He is credited with having great respect for the culture and traditions of Indians, and with sculpture that reflects his perception of their "dignity and beauty".  

He studied at a local technical school to become a civil engineer, learning the skills of drafting and lettering.  He then became a letterer and graphic artist at the Boston Globe newspaper.

In 1892 he met William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody when his famous Wild West Show visited Boston.  Elwell illustrated some of the advertising and publicity that Cody arranged with The Boston Globe and he and Cody became good friends.  According to the artist, "I was associated with Cody for many years in as close a relationship as father and son."  Cody invited the young artist to visit his Montana ranch during the winter to escape the frozen New England weather.  In 1896 he began to contribute some of his training as a civil engineer to the management of a development project at Cody's Ranch, a job he held for 25 years.

In 1897 he married and in 1898 their first child, Alice May was born and three years later Grace Irma was born. Their middle names were the first names of Bill Cody’s daughters.

At the Cody ranches in Wyoming and Nebraska, Elwell met many of the great western personalities of the day such as Frederic Remington, Diamond Jim Brady, Theodore Roosevelt, Annie Oakley – who taught Elwell’s daughter how to shoot, and Sioux tribal chief Iron Tail, who made him a member of the Sioux tribe.

He also sketched constantly and completed paintings illustrations that were used by Winchester Arms and United States Cartridge, as well as for calendars and advertisements for Cody's Wild West Show.  The Buchanan Company of Boston used his sculpture models for Winchester Arms, Tower Slicker and Samoset Chocolate companies, and his illustrations appeared in the Ladies Home Journal.

He illustrated several books about soldiers, Indians and cowboys for young readers, such as Born to the Blue, The Boy Who Won, and The Girl From Big Horn Country. During the 1920s he drew black and white interior pen & ink illustrations for Harper's, Century Magazine, American Magazine, and The Outing Magazine. He also drew interiors as well as painted covers for pulp magazines such as Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, Adventure, West, Short Stories, and Frontier Stories.

By 1930 his daughters had married, and he and his wife had found a winter home in the South West in cattle grazing land.  They lived on Camp Wood Road, near Bagdad, Arizona, just west of the Prescott National Forest.  He painted scenes of the Old West and he continued to sell freelance illustrations to pulp Western magazines, such as All Western, Ace-High, Short Stories, and West.

Although he lived most of his life in the West, he retained his Boston accent and mannerisms.  After the years of working for Cody and the end of the Cody 'empire', Elwell went back East but continued to paint and sculpt from western subject matter.  

However, his heart remained in the West. After the war he left his primary residence in Massachusetts, and moved first to Wyoming, then Utah. He moved to Wickenburg, Arizona, where he worked as an art teacher for Remuda Ranch.  He did painting illustrations for little Brown & Company and also made paintings of the Old West for art galleries. In the 1950s he illustrated interior stories for the popular mainstream magazine, Arizona Highways.

In his last years he lived in Phoenix, Arizona, where he died in 1962 at the age of eighty-eight.

Source: AskART