The Cowboy Artist

Charles Marion Russell's life and work.

By 3.18.14

Wikimedia Commons

Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926) celebrates his sesquicentenary on March 19, and this fact will be largely ignored by America’s decadent cultural establishment. A creative workhorse, the artist produced over 4,000 pieces in a run of forty years: paintings, drawings, sculpture, and commissioned illustrations for books and magazines. He even amused correspondents with whimsically illustrated letters and postcards that featured his trademark cow skull logo next to his signature, and those artifacts are quite valuable today.

Russell’s anniversary will be observed on a small scale. The eponymous C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana has events planned. And he is currently included in “The American West in Bronze: 1850-1925” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a show featuring some pieces representative of a discipline that was for Russell an avocation.

“Charlie” Russell was born in St. Louis to Charles and Mary Russell, his father a prosperous merchant in the coal business. Rudimentary schooling brought forth a talent for drawing and obsessive reading about the American West, and Russell lit out at sixteen for central Montana, where he found subsistence work on a sheep ranch. He had grown up riding horses in St. Louis, so easily made the transition from sheepherder to cowboy, when in 1880 he found employment on a cattle ranch in the Judith Basin owned by a rancher named Jake Hoover, who became a lifelong friend, and likely gave him his nickname “Kid.” In his spare time Kid Russell amused himself by sketching scenes of ranch life that were the prototypes of future paintings.

As an artist, Russell was unschooled. He never studied in Europe or made a grand tour of its museums and cultural landmarks, as many of his more sophisticated and moneyed contemporaries did, such as the Yale-educated Remington. Most museums were alien to him until later in life when he made business trips to New York and London, which were chores in themselves because Russell hated cities. Even at the height of his fame, the only things he enjoyed as much as painting were riding Monte, his favorite horse, or having a glass of whiskey with old cowboy friends.

It was the terrible winter of 1886-87 on the northern plains that made Russell’s reputation. Many stockmen lost entire herds of cattle. Russell painted a small watercolor of a skeletal, starving steer standing in the snow, slowly being encircled by wolves. The white snow, gray sky, and vaporous breath of the animals make for a bleak scene. The picture was displayed in a shop window in Helena, where it garnered newspaper attention, thus jump-starting the young artist’s career. He eventually enlarged it into one of his signature works, “Waiting for a Chinook,” with the subtitle “The Last of 5,000.”

In 1896 Russell married Nancy Cooper, she a winsome eighteen to his mature thirty-two. The couple settled in Great Falls, where the artist established a studio and began to make a precarious living, which gradually improved as Nancy showed a knack for promoting his work. She was a tough businesswoman who seemed to understand what each particular canvas was worth. She got every dollar she could. Russell famously said: “I paint ‘em; she sells ‘em.” Nancy Russell would manage his career to its end, and continued to champion his work as his estate executor after his death. She oversaw the posthumous publication of “Trails Plowed Under” (1927), a collection of his western stories (Russell was a competent writer who occasionally contributed to newspapers and magazines) and “Good Medicine,” a lively selection of his letters published in 1939. Both books featured illustrations drawn from his work.   

Russell’s career coincided with the mythologization of the American West. William F. Cody in his guise as the first national celebrity—“Buffalo Bill”—had invented it singlehandedly by producing for the stage a bad dime novel called “The Scouts of the Plains,” the seed that germinated Cody’s famous Wild West Show. Russell and Cody knew the West they had both experienced as young men was gone. Cody seemed to believe his fanciful view the older he got; Russell mixed his romanticism with realism. He was “the cowboy artist,” and his encyclopedic knowledge of the day-to-day cowboy life was reflected in his work.

“Bronc to Breakfast” (1908) depicts a cowboy mounted on an out-of-control horse trashing a cow camp on the range. The realist and romantic is presented in this picaresque scene, including an irate camp cook, that could have been pulled from a John Wayne western. Likewise, “A Quiet Day in Utica” (1907) shows a group of rambunctious shoot-‘em-up cowboys at play on the street of a Montana town on payday.

Through his reading Russell was also enamored of the historical West, and the Lewis and Clark expedition was the subject of a number of works. The most famous of these is the mural-sized oil “Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross’ Hole”(1912), which, as its title suggests, depicts the encounter that occurred in the Bitterroot Valley in September, 1805. Today the painting hangs on the wall behind the Speaker’s chair in the Montana House of Representatives in the Capitol building in Helena. Another was “Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia” (1905). “The Custer Fight” (1903) is a boiling fog-of-war canvas seen from the point of view of the Indian combatants. The painting was among the first of its kind and has inspired others that followed.

Russell was fascinated by Native American culture. As a young man he had visited and lived on the Blackfoot Reservation for a while. A painting such as “Buffalo Hunt” (1919) portrayed indigenous Americans in all their mounted majesty. It didn’t hurt that that Russell excelled at drawing horses in motion. Pieces such as “When Blackfeet [sic] and Sioux Meet” (1904) and “The Medicine Man” (1908) exemplify his attention to detail; the former shows his proficiency in depicting the grotesque body-bending chaos of close-quarter mounted combat.

As a sculptor, Russell produced small pieces in bronze. “When the Best Riders Quit” (1921) depicts a cowboy getting bucked off a furious rearing horse. “Meat for Wild Men” (1924), a fast-paced Indian buffalo hunt. These and scores of others both frenetic and serene occupied his last years as an artist.      

When Russell died in 1926 he received the equivalent of a state funeral in Great Falls. His hearse was drawn by six black horses as thousands lined the streets. Kid Russell went home, maybe mounted on Monte, as he rode the range with a lovely view of the mountains.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.