Charlie Russell’s Lost West

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On a closer study of Russell’s sketch, we see that the representatives of the past and the future have congregated for the funeral of Dame Progress’ victim. A coffin rests on the no man’s land between them, surrounded by buffalo skulls and mantled with a small robe on which is written “ WILDWEST. LOVED BY ALL WHO KNEW HER .” Then, along the line of Father Time’s insistent arm, the eye at last settles on some ghostly forms fading into the sky. They are the spirit of the Wild West in its various manifestations—Indians pursuing phantom buffalo, a cowboy trailing a herd of spectral steers, a teamster with a covered wagon, a stagecoach racing full tilt across the bleak, forbidding sky.

All this amounts to a great deal of information—too much to be contained comfortably in one pen drawing. As allegory Dame Progress borders on the trite. At the same time, it has the concentrated impact of a political cartoon. It is a personal statement, and its message is unmistakably sincere. Charlie Russell belonged heart and soul with that downcast band of mourners gathered about the Wild West’s coffin. For even as he rode the open, unfenced range and relished his cowboy freedom, things changed dramatically about him. The thriving cattle industry helped bring the railroad, and the railroad brought the settler. By 1889 the Basin was crowded, to Russell’s way of thinking, and he pushed off north to the Milk River country just below the Canadian border. But there was no escaping progress, and the cowboy way of life was over for Charlie Russell by 1893. “The cow puncher,” he would write many years later,”… is as much history as Parkmans Trapper. The west is still a great country but the picture and story part of it has been plowed under by the farmer.”

 

It was time to commemorate what used to be. So Russell retired from the range and took up his art as a full-time activity. During his cowboy days he had never been without a pencil, a few brushes, and some paints. He had already managed to establish a local reputation as the eccentric cowboy who loved to draw, and a few of his works had been reproduced nationally. But now a sideline was to become his livelihood.

Though Dame Progress proudly stands came relatively early in Russell’s professional career, it provides a compressed statement of the theme that was to dominate all of his subsequent work. “The West is dead !” he would write. “You may lose a sweetheart, / But you won’t forget her.” At least he could never forget, and he painted so that others also might remember. As a man and as an artist he was dedicated to this cause.

With Charlie Russell even more than with most genre painters, it is impossible to divorce his work from his life. One was a direct projection of the other. Thus a second meaning attaches itself to his 1898 drawing of the Wild West’s funeral. Just three years earlier Russell had met a pretty young girl from Kentucky, Nancy Cooper, and his carefree, hard-drinking bachelorhood was rather abruptly terminated. Nancy, sixteen at the time and the product of a broken home, had been taken in by friends of Russell living in Cascade, twenty-five miles up the Missouri from Great Falls. Apparently Nancy was impressed with the cowboy artist at first sight: The picture that is engraved on my memory of him is of a man a little above average height and weight, wearing a soft shirt, a Stetson hat on the back of his blonde head, tight trousers, held up by a “half-breed sash” that clungjust above the hip bones, highheeled riding boots on very small, arched feet. His face was Indian-like, square jaw and chin, large mouth, tightly closed firm lips, the under protruding slightly beyond the short upper, straight nose, high cheek bones, gray-blue deep-set eyes that seemed to see everything, but with an expression of honesty and understanding.… His hands were good-sized, perfectly shaped, with long slender fingers. He loved jewelry and always wore three or four rings. They would not have been Charlie’s hands any other way.

Russell, in turn, was obviously infatuated with Nancy. He had been a maverick for long enough. It was time to settle down, and marriage, as he wrote a friend, is “the onley way to hold a bunch quitter, animals are easier found in pairs than alone.” In 1896 they wed.

Nancy came from simple stock. Her education was minimal, and little in her background, or in the round sweet face that looks out from their formal wedding portrait, betrays her driving ambition or the lump of iron at her core. Nancy began at once to domesticate her new spouse. Russell had been eking out a living from his art work for three years, and his prospects were still cloudy. With single-minded determination, Nancy proceeded to :ctify this situation; before she was done, she had made lharlie Russell one of the most spectacularly successful of ving American painters.