Charlie Russell’s Lost West

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The tensions between Russell’s cronies and his wife were implicit in every line of a carefully worded letter that the artist wrote from New York City to a friend in Great Falls in 1905: Well Trigg, hows everything in the Falls I havent heard from there since I left onely through Nancy an that don’t tell me much of the bunch I mix with but we expect to start home in three weeks so Il soon know.

Nancy never quite understood her husband’s attachment to the human flotsam left behind in the frontier’s wake nor seemed to realize that they were his vital links to an otherwise dead past. They were his comrades in memory. He had little use for critics but respected and valued the opinions of the old-timers. If they liked his work, it was because it was honest—faithful to the way things were as seen through the amber of memory.

With marriage had come responsibility, however, and after the Russells took up residence in Great Falls in 1897 Nancy increasingly exerted her control. She insisted that Charlie work at a steady rate and “locked him up” in his studio until he filled his daily quota. Will Rogers noted that Nancy “took one of the ’o’s outa saloon an’ made it salon ,” and Russell’s old bunch were little appreciative of her achievement. “If Charlie liked you and you admired something he had made he would give it to you,” the California etcher Edward Borein remembered: But Mrs. Russell never gave away anything.… When [Charlie] was around the gallery Nancy was pretty particular, even about the appearance he made. She even would not let him smoke when anyone was around. Once when there wasn’t anyone around and things had been quiet for a while, Charlie begged Nancy to let him smoke and she finally gave her consent. So Charlie and I sat down on our heels and rolled ourselves a smoke.

Russell himself was philosophical about it all. Fourteen years Nancy’s senior, he was gentle and patient, catering to her whims and abiding her social pretensions with hardly a murmur. Perhaps he sensed her own needs, desires, and frustrations. Childless, she had dedicated herself totally to his advancement. Only long after Charlie was securely established, in 1916, did the couple adopt a baby boy, whom they named Jack. “The stork dident bring him,” Russell told a friend. “He had been on earth about three moons when he was thrown in my cut but hes waring my Iron now and I hope nobody ever vents it.” Charlie was enthusiastic about fatherhood and doted on Jack, leaving Nancy to handle matters of discipline. It was an arrangement not exactly unfamiliar to them. “Mame’s the business end,” he once said, “an’ I jest paint. We’re pardners. She lives for tomorrow, an’ I live for yesterday.” Nancy was the figure of Dame Progress in his drawing, and his cronies were the frontier anachronisms relegated to oblivion by Father Time. Between the two Russell effected a workable compromise. Under Nancy’s stern regimen, Frank Bird Linderman remembered, Charlie became “marvelously regular in his habits.” He arose just before sunrise every morning, cooked breakfast for himself, fed his horse, then entered his studio. When he closed the door behind him, he closed out the present and walked into the past. Here in his own log-cabin domain, built to his specifications in 1903 next to their white frame house, he was at home, surrounded by the memorabilia of a lifetime: rifles, saddles, blankets, whiskey kegs, pipes, snakeskins, snowshoes, spurs, parfleche bags, sashes, buffalo teeth, boots, moccasins, bows and arrows, shields, leggings, shirts, quirts, medicine bags, stirrups, a Mexican hatband, a stuffed owl, a Navaho silver belt, hats, Bull Durham tobacco sacks, cartridges, knife scabbards. Each item evoked a part of Russell’s personal past and contained a story and a memory. But the studio was no dusty museum. It was a man’s world, a place where, as he told Nancy when it was first built, “the bunch can come visit, talk and smoke, while I paint.”

Within the ground rules laid out by Nancy, the bunch frequently did come to visit, sitting quietly and watching as the artist worked. Russell was taciturn whenever he was struggling with a painting. “No man ever lived long enough to paint all the pictures I’ve got in mind,” he once said; but the composition, the artistic arrangement of his idea, often bedevilled him, and his sense of aesthetic balance occasionally faltered even in his mature oils. Consequently, when Russell hit on a composition that pleased him, he often repeated it. His various Indian attack scenes, for example, are predictable: mounted warriors crowd together in the foreground as they swirl around a wagon train, a stagecoach, or a cluster of troopers in the distance.