Chances are that if you traveled on the Southern Pacific railroad in December of 1904 you would have spent some time thumbing through the pages of Sunset Magazine. The cover of this particular issue depicting Santa Claus embracing an Anglo cowboy and Hispanic farmer sharing a smoke not only captured the spirit of the season but also the American West at the turn of the 20th century.
The Southern Pacific Railroad created Sunset Magazine in 1898 in order to bolster tourism on it lines throughout the Southwest. Early editions focused on California destinations – the first issue detailing the wonders of Yosemite National Park. But the magazine’s scope quickly expanded to include much of the rest of the region. Artists such as Maynard Dixon and Will James provided dramatic and modern cover illustrations, while writers and poets including Mary Austin, Jack London, and Zane Grey published poems, short fiction, and travelogues. As historian Kevin Starr has noted, Sunset shaped the manner in which many westerners viewed and understood the very psychological center of the region in which they were pursuing their lives.
At once nostalgic while highly modern, Dixon’s work was distinctive. His earliest illustrations, of which the Christmas cover was one, included traditional Western themes done in a stripped down and vivid form – a perfect fit for Sunset’s look. Dixon’s 1905 cover, What an Indian Thinks depicting a lone Native American wrapped in a blanket standing on a mesa embodied a style he would return to later in his career, in paintings such as Earth Knower (1932) and Open Range (1942).
Few travel by rail through the Southwest today, but Sunset Magazine, now a part of the larger Time Warner empire, is still a reflection of the American West’s identity and Dixon’s vision of the region remains as poignant to today as ever. Modern but nostalgic, diverse yet unique, the Southwest is a special place, particularly during the holidays.
From all of us at Blogwest, have a happy holidays and see you all in the new year.