Charlie Russell’s Lost West

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Not long ago, a critic in arts magazine dismissed Charles M. Russell as a painter “characteristically drawn to the transitory and incidental, rather than to the quintessential. “The judgment was inadvertently acute, for Russell was the painter of “the transitory and incidental”—of those things that he knew would soon be lost forever to the American people. His constant theme was given shorthand expression in the buffalo-skull outline that formed part of his signature after 1889. “It’s kind of a symbol of the Old West that’s dyin’, just like the buffalo did,” he explained to an acquaintance. Since Russell’s day scores of western painters have made a practice of liberally sprinkling animal remains across the foreground of their pictures. What has become through repetition merely a decorative convention, in Russell’s work mirrored a reality that he had encountered when he first journeyed to Montana—“This country was dotted with buffalo skulls which brought to my Imagination many wild pictures”- as well as his deeper, instinctive understanding of the transience of any way of life : the new passes heedlessly over the bones of the old.

The Wild West was dead. From the welter of poets, writers, sculptors, and painters who joined in lamenting this fact, Charlie Russell emerged as the towering figure. While Frederic Remington, who was possessed of an ego as large as his talents, tended to view other western painters as poachers on his private preserve, Russell saw them more as valuable allies in a great cause. He took in as his protégés such young artists as Olaf Seltzer and Joe de Yong. He provided encouragement and inspiration for many others—Edward Borein, Charlie Beil, Will James, Will Crawford, Bill Gollings, Joe Scheuerle, Dan Muller, and Ace Powell, to name a few. When Edgar S. Paxson, ; another Montana artist, died in 1919, Russell was generous with his praise. “I am a painter, too,” he said, “but Paxson has done some things that I cannot do. He was a pioneer and a pioneer painter.” For Russell, that was recommendation enough. “His work tells me that he loved the Old West, and those who love her I count as friends.”

When Charlie Russell died in October, 1926, the victim of a heart attack brought on by a goiter condition that his own reluctance to face the surgeon’s knife had permitted to grow to damaging proportions, his host of friends converged on Great Falls for the last rites. Appropriately, it was a motley throng that watched the funeral procession pass by, Russell’s body borne along in a horse-drawn carriage out of deference to the old cowboy’s disdain for automobiles (“skunk wagons,” he used to snort, though Nancy owned an Oldsmobile). And when the mourners had gathered at graveside to pay their final respects to “the painter of the West that has passed,” it must have seemed for a moment as though Russell’s representation of a triumphant Dame Progress, done more than a quarter of a century before, had become reality. “Wild West,” his epitaph might well have read: “Loved by all who knew him.”