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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Charles Marion Russell

A Quiet Day in Utica, 1907, C. M. Russell.                      
Back in the late 1950s, when I was one of a dozen or so barefoot kids prowling the uptown neighborhood of Stockport, Ohio, we used to get together on warm summer nights and play what we called, "Cowboys and Indians." We all had our toy guns and rifles, we'd choose up sides--cowboys and Indians--then we'd have a rousing good time "galloping" about on our pretend horses killing one another. Of course, if you got shot, you had only to fall dead, count to a hundred, then you could get back up and take vengeance on your shooter. Neither side won or lost, but heaven help the adult who got caught in the crossfire. We were all well-versed in the ways of the old west thanks to TV westerns like the The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd), and of course, the "King of the Cowboys," Roy Rogers. Few, if any, of our bright and shiny heroes ever fought Indians. (Back then, even on TV, long before they became "Native Americans," it wasn't politically correct to kill Indians.)
C.M. Russell in his studio ca. 1900
C.M. Russell Self-portrait
None of us had ever heard of the great cowboy artist, Charles Marion Russell, though we'd probably accidentally encountered some of his paintings in the cowboy books and magazines we liked to trade back and forth. The "wild west" streets of Stockport were never quite as wild as Russell's 1907 A Quiet Day in Utica (top) except in our imaginations. Unlike our western heroes, only one of which was born west of the Mississippi (Gene Autry), Russell, came from Missouri where he was born in 1864. From the age of sixteen, Russell was a part of Montana as surely as if he'd been born there. Working first on a sheep ranch, then herding cattle, early in his life he was far more of a "cowboy" than he was artist. In fact, he was well into his twenties before he took up painting.

Waiting for a Chinook, 1887, C. M. Russell
The winter of 1886-87 was particularly harsh in central Montana at the O-H Ranch where Russell happened to be working at the time. The eastern owner of the ranch sent his foreman a letter asking how his cattle had weathered the winter weather. Instead of writing back, the foreman sent the owner a postcard size watercolor painting by Russell of a gaunt, half-frozen steer being hounded by wolves (above). The picture was worth a thousand words. The ranch owner showed the picture around, eventually displaying it in his shop window. From that point on, C.M. Russell became more artist than cowboy.

Water to Camp, C.M. Russell--highlighting the role of women in Native American life.
The Cree Indian, C.M. Russell
For an artist never having had any formal training, Russell's work is little short of astounding. C.M. Russell could well be considered one of the most successful self-taught artists in American history. Moreover, not satisfied in being simply a "cowboy" artist, Russell extended his skills and knowledge by living among the Blood Indians, a branch of the Blackfoot tribe, for over a year. Russell's depictions of Native Americans are unique both for their natural realism and for their depth. There's no hint of the glamorization sometimes seen in his "cowboy" paintings. He was also one of the few western artists to depict the life of Native American women (above and below).

Keeoma 3, C.M. Russell. He used his wife as a model.
When Russell came back to the ranch he found the area overrun by so many settlers, he decided to pack up his paints, brushes, easel, and canvases, and move further north to Great Falls, Montana, where, in 1892, he began making a living as an artist. (The C.M. Russell Museum is located there today.) Settling down, Russell married his wife, Nancy, who fortunately had a better "business head" on her shoulders than did her artist-husband. He was thirty-two. She was eighteen. He painted the west--both cowboys and Indians--she sold his work. By the turn of the century, she was arranging shows all over the U.S. and as far away as London. Western art was "hot." She had the marketing instincts to make the most off it. Russell's 1913 Wild Horse Hunters (above) has become one of his most popular works, one of some two-thousand paintings done over the course of his lifetime. He died in 1926.

Wild Horse Hunters, 1913, C.M. Russell
C.M. Russell by John B.
Weaver, 1959
C.M. Russell was very much a part of the old west, both literally and figuratively. His work became popular during the early years of the 20th-century when dime novels, lithographic prints, and even movies were becoming a key to merchandising wealth. As a more authentic part of that movement than most of its profiteers, Russell can be ranked along with Frederick Remington, William S. Hart, Harry Carey, Will Rogers, and Douglas Fairbanks in shaping our visual history and understanding of this era in American history. Not all these visual images are accurate, but in the case of Charles Marion Russell, most were. His paintings guided the moviemakers, writers, and later the afternoon TV westerns used by my cowboy and Indian friends to turn our southeastern Ohio neighborhood into the wild, wild west of Montana.

C.M. Russell's most famous work, the massive (12 foot X 25 foot)
Lewis and Clark Meet the Flatheads at Ross' Hole, dates from 1912. 
It hangs today in the Montana House of Representatives.


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