- Historic Sites
Charlie Russell’s Lost West
April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
Whatever else might be said of her, Nancy was devoted to her husband and possessed infinite faith in his ability. It as through her insistence that Charlie, who described imself as “lame with a pen” (“I am average on talk but and me these tools [pen, ink, and paper] an Im deaf an urn”), first tried recording those stories that he loved to :11 his friends. Nancy was able to persuade him to de;lop this unsuspected dimension of his talents, and thoumds of readers since have enjoyed the tales collected in Trails Plowed Under (1927).
Nancy was moreover a shrewd, tough-minded businessoman. Charlie had always been profligate with his skills id generous to a fault. Talent was a gift, he was wont to mark, and thus “no credit to its owner; what man can’t :lp he should get neither credit nor blame for.” Guided Y this philosophy, he was incapable of demanding a subantial price for his work. Everyone who knows of Charlie ussell has heard how he used to swap paintings now orth thousands to pay off bar bills and grocery orders, hen Nancy took over their financial affairs, and everyiing changed. Con Price, an old friend from Russell’s cowboy days, had his own version of how this came about. On one of the early trips to New York City that the Rusells began making in 1903, when they were trying to reak into the eastern art market, a foreign nobleman hap:ned to spot a Russell painting hanging in another artist’s udio. After carefully examining it, he asked, “How much this picture worth?”: Charlie … needed money pretty bad just at that time and anted to ask him one hundred and fifty dollars, but didn’t know tiether the old boy would go for that much or not. While he was hesitating Nancy … stepped over to where the old fellow was id said, “This one would be eight hundred dollars,” and the an said, “Very well, I’ll take it.” Charlie said he nearly fell off s stool with joy.
Subsequent trips east aroused further interest in Rusll’s paintings, and he secured several commissions for ustrations as well as major oils. Finally, a one-man show at New York’s Folsom Galleries in 1911, “The West That as Passed,” marked his coming of age in the big-time art orld. Similar exhibitions followed in Calgary, Alberta, hicago, Rome, and London. As Russell’s reputation grew, his prices rose accordingly. Nancy acquired the briquet “Nancy the Robber” from the New York art :alers, but financial success did not spoil her cowboy husind. The most cherished Russell anecdotes turn on his live discovery of the formidable prices (“dead man’s ices,” he called them) that his work could command— and that Nancy was getting. A favorite chestnut has the tist, now established and famous, sitting on a davenport in front of one of his paintings in a New York gallery. Suddenly a fashionably dressed matron swept in and began to inspect the oil closely. “How much is this picture?” she asked an attendant. Upon being told “Six thousand dollars,” she paused, scrutinized it a moment longer, replied “It isn’t worth it,” and walked off. Charlie got up, examined the painting himself for a few minutes, and exclaimed “By God, it isn’t!”
While no one would deny that it was Nancy’s hard work and business acumen that eventually freed the two from financial worries and made it possible for them “to live a little more comfortably” (as Nancy put it), there was another side to her management of her husband’s career: the attempt to control his time and his friendships. Charlie Russell liked most people and was, in his own words, “what is called a good mixer.” An affable man, he was known as an authentic old-West character and doubtless took some pleasure in his reputation. He readily confessed that he was an “eccentric (that is a polite way of saying I am crazy).” His stubborn refusal to abandon the vestiges of his cowboy days—Stetson, sash, and boots—even on black-tie occasions was one mark of his peculiarity. In turn, Russell accepted unquestioningly the right of others to be different. He was not their judge, and those he counted as his friends ran the gamut from bootleggers and gamblers to senators and movie stars. In reply to a 1924 birthday greeting, he wrote: Old Dad Time trades little that men want he has traded me wrinkles for teeth stiff legs for limber ones but cards, like yours, tell me he has left me my friends and for that great kindness I forgive him.
Friends meant much more to Charlie Russell than talent or wealth, and it was here that Nancy played her most controversial role. She saw herself as her husband’s business manager in every respect, jealously shepherding his time and skill. She was well aware of his immense personal appeal and was not averse to exploiting it. She sometimes half dragged him to New York galleries and Hollywood house parties in quest of untapped markets and ever higher prices. At the same time she inevitably came between Charlie and his pals from the days on the range. She had no use for them. They seemed crude and obnoxious to her—better-forgotten reminders of a misguided youth. Moreover, they could not further Russell’s career, and they wasted precious hours that might more profitably be spent at the easel.