Those of us who ride the trails are easily drawn to depictions of “life on the trail,” more commonly known as Western art. This genre portrays a unique phenomenon – “The American West,” and is generally comprised of a few basic elements: cowboys, Indians, horses, cattle, landscape. Contemporary Western artists pursue these themes in endless variations. But the Golden Age of Western art was when the artists knew first-hand the West that now exists mostly in our imaginations – fueled, of course, by classic movies.

For decades, the acknowledged masters of Western art were the duo “Remington and Russell.” But in recent years, another name has joined the pantheon of Frederic Remington (1861-1909) and Charles M. Russell (1864-1926). The “Holy Trinity” of Western art now includes Ed Borein, who lived and worked in Santa Barbara from 1921 until his death in 1945.

The Santa Barbara Historical Society, a major repository of his work, is currently showing “Window on the West: The Etchings of John Edward Borein.” Drawn primarily from the museum’s permanent collection, this exhibit features 40 works of art. The etchings are augmented with memorabilia and photographs of Borein’s Santa Barbara home and studios, which are shown stuffed to the rafters with his collections of Indian baskets, weaving and pottery.

Born in 1872 in San Leandro, California, Borein was something of an artistic prodigy. By the age of five, he was sketching the cowboys driving cattle through the streets of his hometown, headed north for the stockyards of Emeryville on San Francisco’s East Bay. Borein was educated at the Cole School in Oakland, where one of his classmates was the future novelist Jack London. Neither boy showed much interest in school.

Borein’s parents encouraged his artistic talents, and in 1891 he enrolled in the San Francisco Art Association School. But the classroom could only hold him for a month. Determined to be a cowboy, Borein started making his way south in 1893, working as a cowpuncher and learning the way of life that would be the lifelong subject of his art.

In 1921, after marrying at “El Alisal,” the Los Angeles home of Southwest Museum founder Charles Lummis, Borein and his new bride, Lucile, settled in Santa Barbara. The couple lived in his downtown studio, until they were able to establish their own home on the Mesa. When the charming shops of El Paseo were built next to Casa de la Guerra, Borein moved his studio there – a spot now marked by a historic plaque.

Unaffected and garrulous, Borein quickly made friends with virtually anyone of note who came through Santa Barbara. La Barranca, the Pueblo-style home he built with his wife, was constantly populated with guests.

While Borein knew Frederic Remington, it was with Charlie Russell that he developed an abiding friendship. The two met in New York City, where they both lived and worked for a few years, supplying insatiable publishers with a steady stream of illustrations. The Historical Society’s exhibit contains a plaster life mask that Borein made of Russell in 1914, a rare artifact from their days in New York.

A common talent shared by Borein and his friends Will Rogers, Leo Carrillo and Charlie Russell was their ability to spin a yarn. When these practiced raconteurs got together, they would sit and tell stories for hours, each taking his turn. While a tale may have been based in truth, Borein’s referral to his story as a “windy” suggests that reality may have been spiced up a bit.

The friends also liked to send letters to one another, in which, writes Borein biographer Harold G. Davidson, they “vied in their efforts to see who could use the most atrocious grammar and spelling. They communicated in a strange jargon full of ‘hosses,’ ‘Injuns,’ ‘critters’ and ‘varmints,’ but it was all in fun.”

One of these unpunctuated letters is also part of the Historical Society’s exhibit. Addressed to Borein “from his friend CM Russell,” the note is colorfully illustrated with two Indians sitting cross-legged on their hide blankets passing a peace pipe. Russell evokes a poignant representation of life in New York for two fellers who clearly were not city slickers:

My Brother we are both from the big hills

But our fires have been far apart

We met in a strange land

Lonesummis (sic) makes strong friends

of shy strangers

In this big camp where the lodges hide

the sun and its people rube (sic)

shoulders but do not speek (sic)

Your pipe was mine

It is good our hearts are the same

In 1926, Borein traveled to Great Falls, Montana to serve as an honorary pallbearer at the funeral of his dear friend Charles Marion Russell.

Borein died in Santa Barbara in 1945, but his widow, Lucile, lived on until 1967. La Barranca, their home built atop the Mesa when it was virtually undeveloped, was razed in 1972 to make way for the dense buildings now found there.

Borein loved life on the trail, and was a founder of the prestigious men’s riding group Rancheros Visitadores. But his enduring legacy is his art, and his passion for the American West that many people share today.

Mark Your Calendar

Thursday, October 12

Illustrated lecture, 5:30 pm

“John Edward Borein:

The Formative Years”

Followed by wine and

hors d’oeuvres reception

Santa Barbara Historical Society

136 East De la Guerra Street

Tickets at the door, $25 each.

Lecture by former Historical Society trustee Marlene Schultz Miller, a fine art dealer who is considered a leading authority on Borein and his work.

Sunday, October 29

Last day of exhibition

“Window on the West:

Etchings of John Edward Borein”

Santa Barbara Historical Society

136 East De la Guerra Street

Free admission

Tuesday-Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm

Sunday, noon to 5 pm

Closed Mondays

For more information

call 966-1601, or visit