RUSSELL, CHARLES M. (1864-1926)
Charles Marion Russell, born in St. Louis, Missouri, on March 19, 1864, is today known worldwide as Montana's "cowboy artist." The third of six children, he grew up in comfortable circumstances, but he was a misfit–a dreamer who struggled with school and at an early age set his heart on going west. In 1880 his parents yielded to his desire and, just before his sixteenth birthday, granted him permission to accompany a sheepman they knew to Montana Territory. After a stint with a professional meat hunter, Kid Russell (as he came to be known) in 1882 hired on as night herder on a trail drive from Billings to the Judith Basin. Cattle driving and cowboying fit Russell's romantic temperament, and for the next eleven years (apart from the summer of 1888, which he loafed away sketching Indians in Alberta), he "sung to the horses and cattle," earning a reputation as an amusing raconteur with an exceptional gift for portraying the life around him.
Russell's small watercolor Waiting for a Chinook, which shows a starving cow surrounded by hungry wolves, summed up the devastating winter of 1886–87 on the Northern Plains and brought him his first real recognition as an artist. In 1893, persuaded that the open range cattle industry was finished, Russell took up his art full time and in 1896 married Nancy "Mame" Cooper, an unsophisticated eighteen-year-old with a head for business and drive and ambition enough for both of them. She assumed management of his career, encouraging him in 1904 to make the first in a series of trips to New York City, where he met professional illustrators, editors, and publishers who shared his enthusiasm for western subjects. After a one-man exhibition at the Folsom Galleries in New York in 1911, Russell branched out, exhibiting at the inaugural Calgary Stampede in 1912–his first international exposure–and, significantly, at London's Doré Galleries in 1914.
By then Russell was an established artist. Though he did little illustration, his paintings became familiar to the world through postcards, calendars, and color reproductions. Especially adept at modeling, Russell had his first bronze cast in 1904, contributing to the opinion after Frederic Remington's death in 1909 that he was America's most accomplished western artist. Russell's repertoire was set early. He added other subjects to it (mountain men, hunting dramas in the high country, wildlife studies, North-West Mounted Police in action, some shooting scrapes), but the body of his work consisted of cowboy scenes, equally divided between roping and riding pictures, and Indian scenes, including buffalo hunts but mostly showing parties of warriors moving across open space or perched on bluffs, surveying the land below that once was theirs. Indeed, the commemorative, nostalgic tone of these pieces defined the entire body of Russell's work and his commanding theme: "the West that has passed."
Escalating prices followed Russell's rise to prominence. By 1920, when the Russells began spending their springs in California, a major oil painting commanded $10,000. Other celebrities were drawn into his orbit (Hollywood movie stars, popular writers, and every western artist of his day), and the rich and influential became his patrons. But Charlie Russell was a homebody at heart. He was always most comfortable visiting with friends in Great Falls, where he and Mame had lived since 1897, shooting the breeze outside a saloon or cigar store with cronies from his rangeland days, and passing his summers at Bull Head Lodge, his cabin built in 1905 at the foot of Lake McDonald in what became Glacier National Park. He liked his simple, homespun routine, telling the yarns that were published in two "joke books," Rawhide Rawlins Stories (1921) and More Rawhides (1925), and collected in Trails Plowed Under, a Western classic that appeared in 1927, the year after Russell died (on October 24) and was buried in Great Falls.
Charles M. Russell remains one of the most beloved of westerners, admired as much for his sense of humor, his basic decency, and his fierce loyalty to a time and a place as for the artwork enshrined in museums across America. His modest home and log cabin studio in Great Falls bespeak a humble man who made great things out of the ordinary clay of human experience, closely observed and lovingly recorded.
Brian W. Dippie University of Virginia
Dippie, Brian W., ed. Charles M. Russell, Word Painter: Letters 1881–1926. Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum in Association with Harry N. Abrams, 1993.
Dippie, Brian W., ed. Charlie Russell Roundup: Essays on America's Favorite Cowboy Artist. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1999.
Taliaferro, John. Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America's Cowboy Artist. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1996.