Charlie Russell’s Lost West

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When Russell had an idea firmly in mind, he simply transferred his mental picture onto the canvas in charcoal and, according to one biographer, “filled it in.” Of course, things did not always go as smoothly as this would suggest. Russell rarely worked from live models, and his action paintings could not be posed for anyway. Thus when he found himself stymied by a tricky anatomical problem, he would remove his shirt and twist his torso into the desired position in front of a mirror. If this was not adequate, the subject involving animals as well as men, Russell had a simple expedient. He was a magician with beeswax and was often better able to visualize animal action in small, three-dimensional figures shaped with his fingers. When he arrived at an impasse in a painting, he quickly fashioned models of each figure, arranged them, lighted them, and then worked from them directly.

While Russell was doing the actual painting he loved to have company. He would work for a spell, then step back from the easel, squat Indian-fashion on his heels, roll a cigarette, and swap some stories. At noon he quit for lunch, took a brief nap most days, and then, if he felt up to it, returned to the studio for a short session. Done for the day, he meticulously cleaned his brushes, mounted his horse, and rode off downtown. His destination was invariably a cigar store or one of Great Falls’ famous saloons, the Mint or the Silver Dollar.

In the early years of their marriage, Nancy would hold up two fingers as Charlie headed away, setting the permissible limit on his drinking for that afternoon. Though it is questionable whether Russell’s consumption rate was ever as prodigious as legend would have it, one close associate was convinced that his wife saved him “from the life of a rounder.” By 1908, in apparent deference to Nancy’s wishes, Russell had sworn off alcohol altogether. He still faithfully made his rounds, however, returning home punctually at five o’clock. For it was not whiskey but companionship that lured him. Downtown offered Russell an escape from the sphere of feminine control, if only for a few hours. It provided him the opportunity to talk with his kind of people, “nature loving regular men.”

The adjustment from night wrangler to nationally known artist had not been entirely easy for Russell. His personality had been shaped by his years on the range, and his humor was earthy, frequently bawdy. Some of his best stories never made it between the covers of a book, though a few of the water colors that he dashed off for the saloon trade have survived despite Nancy’s frantic attempts to get her hands on them. He had an unabashedly provincial suspicion of “true aht” and its practitioners, and while in London in 1914 described how a futurist “but like a wine bottle verry lady like an wore a thin beard” led him up to “something in a frame that looked lik an enlarged slice of spoilt summer sausig And said this is not disintegration of Simultaneousness but Dynamic dynamism. An it did look like that.” But far more remarkable than the affinities between Russell and his cronies were the differences. After all, he did paint for a living. He had quit drinking, and he would not kill for sport. He loved to go out with a hunting party in the autumn “an play old times,” but his friend Frank Linderman remarked that “inordinately fond of their meat as he was, I never knew him to kill a deer, elk, or any other animal.” He could not stand to see an animal abused, and he was an outspoken friend of the Indian. In a 1902 letter to Montana Senator Paris Gibson, Russell pointedly stated what was still an unpopular position in the West. He began in his usual anecdotal manner: Speaking of gamblers reminds me several years ago when games were wide open I sat at a faryo layout in Chinook the hour was lat an the play light a good deal of talk passed over the green bord the subject of conversation was the Indian question the dealor Kicking George was an old time sport who spoke of cards as an industry … the Kicker alloud an Injun had no more right in this country than a Cyote I told him what he said might be right but there were folks coming to the country on the new rail road that thaught the same way about gamblers an he wouldent winter maney times till hed find out the wild Indian would go but would onley brake the trail for the gambler

My prophecy came true we still have the gambler but like the cyote civilization has made him an outlaw. …

Whenever Russell was away from Great Falls for an extended period of time—on vacation in the South or for an exhibition in the East—he sent back engaging letters embellished with water-color vignettes depicting incidents of his trip. With his highly innovative and generally inconsistent spelling, such “paper talk” (as he called it) must have been like listening to the cowboy artist in person.