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Charles M. Russell
Charles M. Russell
"Cowboy Artist"


 Facts and Reflections About Charles M. Russell

by Vivian A. Paladin

An excerpt from "CM Russell The Mackay Collection"
with permission from the Montana Historical Society
This book is available in the Gift Shop.

Charles Marion Russell was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on March 19, 1864, a member of a prosperous family whose manufacturing business promised a secure financial future. But from early boyhood, young Charles showed a streak of nonconformity, preferring to mold figures out ot clay, draw pictures, and wander down to the waterfront of St. Louis to dream and talk with the adventurers who had been to the western frontier. By the time he was thirteen years old, Russell had his dream firmly in mind; he even ran away to spend days at the river and return home to plead with his despairing parents to let him go west.

Hoping to dissuade him, and discipline him, the Russell's enrolled him in a New Jersey military academy. When that failed, the boy's parents finally agreed to let him go to Montana Territory by railroad and stage in the company of Pike Miller, a family friend. It was the earnest hope of the parents that a few weeks of rugged life in still frontier Montana would effect a permanent cure for Charles's wanderlust.

It was in March, 1880, just short of his sixteenth birthday, that the boy and his older companion rolled into Helena, the roaring gold town on Last Chance Gulch. Memories of Indian wars were still acute -- it had been only four years since George Custer's command was wiped out on the Little big Horn -- and there was still a wide-open roughness up and down the dusty streets of every settlement. But instead of scaring him, the scenes which met his eyes only solidified the boy's wish to stay in the territory which still had a population of less than 40,000 people.

Charles went to work on Pike Miller's sheep ranch in the Judith Basin near present-day Lewistown. By his own account, it was not a happy association, and he soon quit. "I do not think my employer missed me much, as I was considered pretty ornery," Russell later recalled.

Soon after, the youngster cast his lot with Jake Hoover, a hunter and trapper who was wise in the ways of the West. This time the association was both happy and edifying. For the next two years, Russell learned much about the country from the colorful Hoover, and when money came from his parents for his fare to St. Louis, he returned it. When he had saved enough out ot his own earnings, Russell visited his home in 1882, but could not stand "civilization" for only four months. He rarely left his adopted state again except for infrequent visits to St. Louis, New York, and other cities in America and abroad--and, towards the end of his life, portions of cold winter months in California.

After he left Jake Hoover, Charlie began working on the open range. He was an affable, congenial hand who was called "Kid" Russell by more experience men. Hired as a night wrangler at Billings, he joined an outfit which trailed 1,000 cattle into the Judith Basin. Although he never claimed to be a top cowboy, his responsibilities were real enough, and he obviously did his work, combining with it a talent for telling stories, drawing pictures on every available surface, and modeling little clay figures for the amusement of his bunkmates.

In the winter of 1886-87 he painted his famous postcard-size "Waiting for a Chinook," informing Stadler and Kaufman that the tragic hard winter which marked the decline of open-range ranching, had nearly wiped out their herd of 5,000 Bar-R cattle in the Judith Basin of Central Montana.

In 1888, the young wrangler rode north into Canada with a friend and decided to spend the winter among the Blood Indians. Although he never planned it that way, this sojourn among his "red brothers" had a profound effect on him and his later artistic output. When he returned to the Judith Basin in 1889, he found the range filling with homesteaders, towns and the inevitable confinements of growth and "civilization." Vainly looking for open range, Russell moved to the Milk River area just south of Canada, then spent the next two years as an itinerant. He came to Great Falls in the fall of 1892 to live thereafter as an artist, although it was tough going for several years in spite of growing numbers of admirers and more and more mention in the press.

In 1896, when he was 32 years old, Charlie Russell married an attractive 18-year-old girl named Nancy Cooper. She became his business manager, a role he gladly let her play. While many of his cronies resented the strictures she placed on his casual drinking and visiting habits, she was credited by her husband, and all authorities today, with bringing him success. Nancy Russell thoroughly believed in her husband's talent, and sensed that he was depicting the western scene better than anyone ever had. His enormous gifts were combined with his own experiences and his own philosophies to produce a body of art unsurpassed to this day for its authenticity and beauty. He came to the scene just at the right time, and he had the perception to recognize that what he first saw was not to last. He recorded it.

In 1900, after a number of lean years, the Russells bought a home in Great Falls in a respectable neighborhood, and three years later, Charlie built his log studio adjacent to it. While her husband was at his easel perfecting his artistry, Nancy was planning trips to larger centers of population to expose it to collectors beyond the borders of Montana. The first trip came late in 1903, and led to the showing of one of his paintings at the World's Fair in St. Louis early in 1904. After that acceptance, and a visit with Russell's father, they continued on to New York, where the artist got his first look at what he called the "Big Camp." It was not to be his last.

Although the New York trips eventually brought success -- including what he called "dead man's prices" -- Charlie Russell always longed to get back to Montana as soon as possible. "The bartenders won't drink with you even," he wrote after a visit in 1908. "Now I like to have the bartender drink with me occasionally, out ot the same bottle, just to be sure I ain't gettin' poison."

As reported earlier in this publications, the 1911 trip to New York, where his work was shown at the prestigious Folsom Galleries, is believed to be the one during which he met Malcom S. Mackay of Wall Street and New Jersey, which led to their warm friendship and Mackay's remarkable collection. But of course there were many other contacts, and in 1912, after a showing at the famed Calgary Stampede in Canada, his fame spread northward and eventually to London. The Cowboy Artist had arrived.

After 1919, Charlie and Nancy began spending some winter months in California, and again this led to new friends and collectors, this time in the movie world. Such people as William S. Hart, Douglas Fairbanks, Harry Carey and Noah Berry were attracted to both him and his art, some of them introduced by Will Rogers, whom he had encountered earlier in New York when the great humorist was struggling to sell his rope-twirling talents on Broadway. Russell enjoyed all these associations, but the tug back to Montana never left him.

In 1923, when he was nearly 60 years of age, Russell suffered a severe attack of sciatic rheumatism, and his letters to friends began to show a faint touch of nostalgia, as did his paintings. Along with the pain of his rheumatism, he began being bothered by a goiter, which was finally removed at Rochester, Minnesota, in June, 1926. Although the operation was successful, Russell was suffering from a weakened heart, and his doctors told him he had only months to live.

Just before midnight on October 24, 1926, Charlie Russell died at his home in Great Falls. People from all walks of life, including his beloved old cowboy and Indian friends, wept on the streets of Great Falls as his funeral cortege, unmechanized, passed down the street.

The death of the Cowboy Artist was noted in newspapers and publication throughout the country, and the measures of man and artist was universally reported. this writer found a unique account about him in the New York Herald Tribune, dated Sunday, December 5, 1926. Headed THE END OF THE TRAIL, the text is by Gutzon Borglum, the restless genius who created the Presidential monuments at Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills. It reads, in part:

"Charles Marion Russell, who has just passed, was of the self-reliant race of lone explorers, a pioneer, a student, a painter of life. I've read the rubbish about him, how he drank, lived with the Indians, trapped, punched cows, which has filled columns with cheap newspaper gossip.

"Of course he drank, and I'll wager he could drink in competition with the fabled Danes, dry up the swollen streams to let his lady pass. Gamble? Certainly! He gambled his life to record the sob of a lone trapper...Swear? I hope he swore -- and as picturesquely as Shakespeare, as meaningfully as Washington..."

Borglum ended his article with a remarkably perceptive analysis of Russell's work in comparison to that of the great Frederic Remington. It is a subject which has been discussed by experts and  partisans of one artist or the other for many years. Borglum, who had his own critics and partisans throughout his mercurial career, is worth listening to on this intriguing point:

"Russell has often been compared to Remington. We know hs disliked this. I did not know Russell personally and I cannot say what he thought of Remington. But let us say this: No two men can be compared or paired...Remington had his place; it is unique, but deals with the drama of a phase of life. His art has a strong reportorial character, which seems to me to leave the creator as little responsible for the result or the character as the onlooker. Remington, I'm trying to say, seems...curiously detached from his own art and I believe in the lack it wants the vitality I feel all great work must possess...

"Russell cut deeper. Russell, for instance, would not paint a picture of a couple of cowboys branding a calf with the calf buried under chaps and a man or two taking the iron. If the subject were used, ten chances to one, he would select a situation where the calf was having a least a fifty-fifty chance of beating the cowboys. 

"The incident of branding would not be enough for Russell. The hazard, the chance and the possible tragedy would alone engage his whole interest. Russell had not only the wit to see the dual situation attached to any great moment, but he had...the power to draw animals, horses, cattleman, in the mixed-up, tangled-up situation daily occurring in the wild unfenced West -- situation no other artist has ever attempted.

"Remington has, on the other hand, painted lonely figures on great vast spaces with a charm all their own, inimitable. Let us be grateful that we have them both, each in his span, giving us their separate record of a life that practically has gone with them."

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