Charlie Russell’s Lost West

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Of course it could never be, and Russell voiced his frustration to Bill Gollings, a fellow western artist: “Aint it hell Bill what we missed by coming late.”

Russell was never reconciled to change and “progress.” A George Catlin might willingly grant the necessity of civilization’s ultimate triumph in North America even as he was chasing down unspoiled Indians to preserve in paint. Charlie Russell could never be so equanimous. “Invention has made it easy for man kind but it has made him no better,” he grumbled, and one of his most revealing letters told of a visit to the world’s fair at St. Louis in 1903. It was “verry grand,” he said, “but it dont interest me much.” He went on to describe instead a poignant incident at an “animal gardens” near the fairgrounds: they have a verry good collection among them a cyote who licked my hand like he knew me I guess I brought the smell of the planes with me I shure felt sorry for him poor deval a life sentence for nothing on earth but looks and general princepales. but you cant do nothing for a feller whos hoi famely is out laws as far back as aney body knowes, eaven if he is a nabor of yours … with nothing to do but think of home its Hell thats all

Like that caged and lonely animal far from its natural habitat, Russell survived on memories of things past. But J. Frank Dobie, the Texas storyteller who, steeped in regional lore and rooted in a time and a place of his own, felt a special kinship with the Montana painter, perceptively noted that Russell’s resistance to change, his conservatism, “was not the conservatism of the privileged who resent change because change will take away their privileges. It was the conservatism of love and loyalty.” Personally, as Russell wrote to another western artist, Charlie Beil, “whats the use kicken I got non comin when I come west I got the cream let the come lattys have the skim milk.”

In Russell’s declining years his palette grew even brighter, and his skies blazed with brilliant sunsets. Color took precedence over exacting draftsmanship, and story yielded almost entirely to mood. Though he vocally disdained impressionism and, at his most philistine, stubbornly insisted that its practitioners simply could not draw, his own artistic evolution was away from a literal realism and toward a more impressionistic style. Besides a more experimental use of color, a few strokes of the brush now sufficed to imply gestures that would at one time have been rendered with exact precision. There were parallel changes in his sculpture, too. Russell had always found modelling “a lot easyer than drawing,” and his greater freedom in that medium allowed him to capture elusive effects—an “indescribable spirit ” according to one artistic contemporary. His two superb allegorical bronzes, The Spirit of Winter (showing a skeletal figure leaning into a stiff wind, his pack of wolves snarling around him) and Secret of the Night (showing a patriarchal Indian taking counsel from an owl perched on his shoulder), were both cast in his last year of life.

Some have detected in Russell’s later paintings a marked decline in quality, and his protégé Olaf C. Seltzer bluntly declared that after 1920 Russell was “but a hollow husk, a mere shell of his former self, either as man or artist.” Yet there is a certain Tightness about Russell’s work in his last few years. The cowboy artist had grown old and was plagued with poor health. He had achieved extraordinary success and popularity, but neither had ever much interested him. His youthful vitality was long since exhausted, and he dwelt increasingly in memory. Indians still watched from windswept hilltops in his paintings, but now they seemed content to bask in the glowing sunsets, with nothing more pressing on their minds than the enjoyment of the day’s fading warmth. Cowboys rode out to do their chores with the sky in flames behind them. In one oil done in 1925 a night wrangler stands just outside the circle of a campfire’s light, eavesdropping on the conversation for a few moments before he returns to his solitary rounds. Laugh Kills Lonesome , Russell called it, and the title takes on an added meaning. For the oil was finished the year before his death; most of the old-timers were gone; now, truly, they could live only through his brush, and his longing for them—for all of the West’s past—was in this painting. That lonely night wrangler was the artist himself.