"Hands Up!" was published as a color frontispiece illustration of the August 1906 issue of McClure's Magazine, accompanying Part I of C.P. Connolly's The Story of Montana. On May 23, 1906, N.C. Wyeth excitedly explained to his mother about this commission, writing: “Well--this has been another loud week. Full of opportunities, some of which I am trying hard to realize. Mr. Pyle blew in like a whirlwind last Saturday and presented me with the leading article for McClure's for the coming months, or rather the months following August. The subject for the first installment is "A Montana Hold-Up." I have already started it and it's most surely the strongest thing I ever did of its kind. [Stanley] Arthurs said, 'It’s the most original thing you’ve done in a long while.' That meant a great deal coming from him. I have to finish the picture by Thursday so you see I have to hustle. I started Monday morning to lay it in (a huge canvas), and finished the 'lay in' by 12 o'clock." (as quoted in B.J. Wyeth, The Wyeths: The Letters of N.C. Wyeth, 1901-1945, Boston, Massachusetts, 1971, p. 167)
Connolly's tale that Wyeth illustrated was publicized as "a series of articles which will tell fully and accurately the story of the personal and political feuds, the legal and business wars which have kept the State of Montana in turmoil from the beginning..." (“The Story of Montana,” McClure’s Magazine, vol. 27, no. 4, August 1906, p. 346) In the first chapter titled "The Reign of Lawlessness and Its Overthrow by the Vigilantes--The Beginnings of Law and Order in Montana," which the present work accompanied, the author recounts the gold rush of the 1860s when rumors of great opportunity quickly drew men from both the East and California to try their luck in Alder Gulch, southwestern Montana, where Bill Fairweather had struck gold. Connolly writes, "Ten thousand people rushed into that gulch within ninety days after the discovery of the gold-beds. Out of Alder Gulch was taken, in pans, gold aggregating one hundred millions of dollars. It yielded a greater amount of gold, perhaps, than any other field on our continent. A city was founded and called Virginia City." (“The Story of Montana,” McClure’s Magazine, vol. 27, no. 4, August 1906, p. 348)
As seen in the present work, where the opportunity for great wealth develops, so does the opportunity for great crime. "The population of Alder Gulch soon became a law unto itself." (“The Story of Montana,” p. 348) Road-agents swore membership into gangs, and the trails out of the village were under constant surveillance by the criminals looking for an opportunity to steal another man's newly hard-earned fortune. Connolly goes on to explain how the trials of these men and the rise of the eventual "Vigilante" United States Senator, Colonel Wilbur F. Sanders, brought about a formal legal system in the wild lands of Montana. However, for a time, even the sheriff of the town could not be trusted, as he became the secret leader of the predatory bands of men. In a tale which may have inspired the present scene, Connolly recounts, "As sheriff, he was likely to know when each man who had made his 'stake' proposed to depart with his treasure, and by what route he intended to leave. Through him this information was promptly disseminated among the outlaws. The sheriff, piloting the unsuspecting victims, with their treasure, through dangerous mountain passes, gave the signal which brought about the little party a troop of highwaymen who, after securing the gold-dust, often resorted to massacre to conceal evidence or prevent possible betrayal." (“The Story of Montana,” p. 349)
What better subject for N.C. Wyeth, whose quintessential characters of strong, heroic men are routinely faced with harrowing circumstances full of drama and suspense. In "Hands Up!" Wyeth cleverly immerses the viewer into the story, with the perspective implying that the figure being held up in the wagon is staring right down the gun barrel held by the viewer himself. The crime literally occurs in the shadows, the artist employing stark contrast between the bright light of the Montana plains and the cool danger in the blind curves of its ravines. Amidst this darkness, the whites of the horses' frightened eyes seem to project the feelings of the trapped gold miners on the wagon. "He has an extraordinary skill at capturing the quality of light itself, not merely its symbolic representation in the arrangement of planes and their shadows, and he exercises it to the fullest, with an almost offhand delight in his mastery. His compositions are massive, with the play of great bodies, or loom of rock, or rise of tree, or the bulk of something fashioned by builders. There is substance to his forms and reality to his objects." (D. Allen, D. Allen, Jr., N. C. Wyeth: The Collected Paintings, Illustrations and Murals, New York, 1972, p. 11)
As the artist himself noted, "Hands Up!" stands as one of N.C. Wyeth's strongest compositions from a period during which Scribner's declared that Wyeth's Western pictures have “no equal in his field.” The painting, prompting the viewer to wonder what will happen next in this particular story, yet also evoking a general nostalgia for the Old West, epitomizes the technical and compositional skill, and unmatched sense of visual narrative, which has garnered N.C. Wyeth fame as one of America's foremost illustrators.
signed and dated 'N.C. Wyeth/-06-' (lower left)
Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945)
Tucson, Arizona, University of Arizona Museum of Art, The West and Walter Bimson: Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture Collected by Mr. Walter Reed Bimson, April-June 1971, pp. 158, 221, illustrated (as Holdup in the Canyon).
Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Brandywine River Museum; New York, New York Cultural Center, N.C. Wyeth, May 20-December 31, 1972, no. 32.
Tucson, Arizona, Tucson Museum of Art, Arizona Collects the West, October 16-December 7, 1983 (as Hold-Up in the Canyon).
Lenigrad, USSR, Academy of the Arts of the USSR; Moscow, USSR, Academy of the Arts of the USSR; Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art; Dallas, Texas, Dallas Museum of Art; Chicago, Illinois, Terra Museum of American Art; Tokyo, Japan, Setagaya Art Museum; Milan, Italy, Palazzo Reale; Cambridge, England, Fitzwilliam Museum; Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Brandywine River Museum, An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art, March 11, 1987-November 22, 1988, pp. 90, 199, no. 2, illustrated.
Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Brandywine River Museum; Portland, Maine, Portland Museum of Art; Tulsa, Oklahoma, Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, N.C. Wyeth's Wild West, September 8, 1990-April 7, 1991, pp. 57, 75, 81, no. 21, illustrated.
Scottsdale, Arizona, Scottsdale Center for the Arts, Romance of the Range: The Horse in Western Art, October 27-December 8, 1991 (as Holdup in the Canyon).
C.P. Connolly, “The Story of Montana,” McClure’s Magazine, vol. 27, no. 4, August 1906, frontispiece illustration.
B.J. Wyeth, The Wyeths: The Letters of N.C. Wyeth, 1901-1945, Boston, Massachusetts, 1971, p. 167.
D. Allen, D. Allen, Jr., N.C. Wyeth: The Collected Paintings, Illustrations and Murals, New York, 1972, pp. 36, 266, illustrated.
J. Serven, “Wagons of the West,” Arizona Highways, vol. 52, no. 4, April 1976, p. 43, illustrated.
J.H. Duff, The Western World of N.C. Wyeth, Cody, Wyoming, 1982, p. 14.
M. Ennis, “From the Wyeth House to the White House,” Texas Monthly, October 1987, pp. 146, 148.
K.F. Jennings, N.C. Wyeth, New York, 1992, p. 30, illustrated.
C.B. Podmaniczky, N.C. Wyeth: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, vol. 1, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, 2008, pp. 144-45, no. I.135, illustrated.
William W. Haas, San Francisco, California, 1942.
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York.
Walter Reed Bimson, Phoenix, Arizona.
Valley National Bank of Arizona Collection.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.