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Charles Marion Russell

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Charles Marion Russell
(St. Louis, Missouri, 1864 - 1926, Great Falls, Montana)

At age fifteen, Charles M. Russell yearned to see the West. Miserable and unmotivated as a student, he left his conservative, well-to-do St. Louis family in March 1880 and went to Montana to begin a life of hard work and high adventure. When he finally settled in Great Falls, Montana, in 1900, Russell had dedicated himself instead to a life of arts and letters, depicting and writing about his appreciation of the vanishing cultures and independent lifestyles of the American Western frontier.

For eleven years, young “Charlie” Russell worked in Montana as a cowboy, specifically as a wrangler. His family had recognized his talents as an artist before he left St. Louis, but his resistance to schooling seems to have extended to art training, and he apparently taught himself the rudiments of art, using his natural talent as a draftsman. (1) At first Russell traded his drawings, paintings, and small wax or clay figures for food or drinks, or gave them away to his fellow cowboys or friends. Around 1881 he acquired oil paints and set about establishing a larger reputation as an artist. (2)

In the winter of 1888, Russell went to live with a tribe of Blood Indians in Canada. From them he gained a great storehouse of knowledge about the customs, legends, habits, and social practices associated with American Indian life, and he developed a profound respect for these traditions, which were rapidly fading into history. Apart from his desire to record Indian culture, Russell recognized the market value of his productions, as weekly illustrated magazines competed to supply stories of the “Old West” for eager readers in the urban East. Indian subjects predominate in Russell’s work, and the artist increasingly identified the Indians’ plight with his personal philosophy—seeing them as defenders of nature against the encroachment of civilization and himself as the hope for their survival in the historical record. (3)

Russell married in 1896, and his wife, Nancy, recognized both his talent as an artist and the importance of his art as evidence of the time and place in which he lived. She was responsible for marketing his work to a wider audience and establishing his reputation in the New York art market and among collectors. He attained international fame as “the Cowboy Artist,” and his works sold for impressive sums, making him one of highest-paid living artists of his time, with individual paintings selling for as much as $20,000. (4)

(1) Russell’s parents may have enrolled him in art classes in St. Louis, but there is no evidence that he ever attended them. His skill as a draftsman is demonstrated in his letters, which include many informal and frequently humorous vignettes. See Peter H. Hassrick, Charles M. Russell (New York and Washington, DC: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with The National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1989), p. 15.

(2) Ibid., pp. 25–28. Russell made a small drawing of a starving steer, Waiting for a Chinook, and sent it to the cattleman who owned the herd as a visual demonstration of the ravages of the winter of 1886. The compelling image was later reproduced photographically and distributed, furthering Russell’s art career.

(3) Ibid. p. 35.

(4) The C. M. Russell Museum Permanent Collection Catalogue (Great Falls, MT: C. M. Russell Museum, 1989), p. 9.

American Paintings from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, cat. no. 43, p. 118.

Image credit: Unknown Artist, Charles Marion Russell, about 1900, photographic print, Charles Scribner's Sons Art Reference Department Records, c. 1865-1957, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Photograph courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

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