Shadow lands

Robert Cole Caples: Rooted in Nevada

An untitled lithograph depicting the Nevada desert by Robert Cole Caples.

An untitled lithograph depicting the Nevada desert by Robert Cole Caples.

In The City of Trembling Leaves, Walter Van Tilburg Clark wrote of the fictional character Lawrence Black and his paintings: “The canvas on the easel was nearly covered by voluminous, dark hills, rolling and rising like the slate-colored clouds which shadowed them. A tiny, white pyramid stood at the foot of the hills, bright in the clouds. The light lay more softly upon the slope behind the pyramid, dimmed outward and was lost.”

Lawrence Black is based on Robert Cole Caples, an artist and good friend of Clark’s. Both men lived in Northern Nevada and were deeply inspired by its landscape.

Robert Cole Caples: Rooted in Nevada now exhibited at the Nevada Historical Society, is the first sizable exhibition in 25 years of the undersung Caples. The more than 20 works here are part of the Nevada Museum of Art’s permanent collection as well as newly acquired drawings. They are being presented as part of the Nevada Arts Council’s Nevada Touring Initiative.

These works chronicle a number of different phases as Caples searched for direction in his life and art. They range from the charcoal portraits of Native Americans, for which he is perhaps best-known, to the evocative landscapes of Northern Nevada to a peaceful courtyard patio scene, “Lizard Hall,” to more abstract works like “Ambient Planet.”

Though he was raised in New York and spent his final years in Connecticut, Caples lived about 35 years in Northern Nevada. His home in Dayton was listed on the state Register of Historic Places in 2006. He first came to Reno in 1924 and was hired by the Federal Arts Project in the 1930s, where he traveled the region, meeting and drawing charcoal portraits of Native Americans, especially the Paiute Indians living around Pyramid Lake. These portraits—a kerchiefed woman’s profile, a man wearing a feathered war bonnet, sketches of arrowheads, bows and spears—are full of respect and intrigue. In “Jigger Bob”, the deeply creviced face of the old Indian living at Pyramid Lake shows elements Caples would later employ in his landscapes.

“His face was lined as the desert is lined, it reflects for me, the stuff of the desert,” wrote Caples. “I began to feel that these Indians were part of the scene, part of the mountains.”

In the 1940s, he shifted away from portraiture to the land. His landscapes are sweeping, haunting works of arcing mountains, a flurry of clouds and wind that appears to move across the canvas. Some are dark, moody and troublesome, others peaceful. All have layers and secrets. Engaged with light, shadow and pattern, Caples said he wanted to convey not a particular landscape, but the essence of the landscape.

Other brightly colored works painted in the 1950s show the influence of local Native American legends and culture. “Indian Images” appears inspired by local rock art: simple lines create deer-like animals and black figures of bow hunters combined with other symbols, all painted over a deep burgundy, much like the red surface under some of Nevada’s ancient rock art.

Caples moved to Connecticut in 1958, and aside from completing The Potter, an illustrated book he’d been working on since the 1930s, he didn’t paint again. Many speculate it was because he left his inspiration in Nevada.

In a letter to a Reno friend, he wrote: “My head tells me that Nevada does not swing free of our globe, like a mountainous rat floating on blue air—but my heart speaks differently. I’m reasonably sure that sage does not squint on windy days or that thunder will [not] dislodge stone—I can only say that things feel this way.”