Charlie Russell’s Lost West

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Since the Russells made a habit of wintering in California after 1919, Charlie’s Great Falls friends were annually regaled with tales about the Golden State. California morality provided one inexhaustible topic. “I was at the beach the other day,” Russell commented in 1923, “and if truth gose naked like they say it dos folks dont lye much at the sea shore a man that tyes to a lady down hear after seeing her in bathing aint gambling much its a good place to pick em but its sometimes Hell to hold em this is a good country for lawyers and preachers ones tying the others untying an thair both busy.” The California weather was also a favorite theme. “You will see by the sketch I am among the palms and flowers but Im still packing coal,” Russell wrote back from California one February. “Sun shine in this country is like near beer it looks good thats all.” Another time, speaking of the bungalow that he and Nancy rented in Pasadena, Russell observed that it was set “among flowers and palm trees that have been here long enough not to mind the cold ore maby the flowers are like the native sons they wont admit it.” Such gibes provided laughs for friends shivering through a long Montana winter. Too, they were doubtless calculated to banish envy in Russell’s less privileged cronies. “Friend Georg,” he began one letter cheerfully, “I hear its been cold up home well it aint had nothing on the oringe belt Its don everything but snow down here Iv been cold so long now Im numb.”

Like so many Americans since, Charlie Russell saw in California a chilling vision of the future. From his casual remarks and humorous yarns an unflattering picture emerges of a plastic society, “strictly man made.” “I think in early days it was a picture country before the boosters made real estate out of it,” he wrote an eastern acquaintance in 1920: the live oak is a native of this country and good to look at but it dident looke warm enough so the land boomer stuck in palm trees and plenty of roses… this is the birth place of Bunko and bungiloos… if I was painting frute flowers automobils ore flying mashines this would be good country but nature aint lived here for a long time and thats the old lady Im looking for.

For a confirmed movie addict like Russell, it was fun hobnobbing with the Hollywood set and seeing new sights. But while Nancy dreamed of a year-round home in Pasadena, Charlie stoutly reaffirmed his own preference for Montana. “California is all right,” he put it simply in a 1924 letter to a Great Falls friend, “but I can’t see [B]elt ore [S]quar butte from here Frank give my best whishes to Montana nobodys bared.”

 

Their humor aside, Russell’s letters to friends back home occasionally exude a nostalgia that makes them almost painful to read. “Its about thirty two years since I first saw this burg,” he reported from Chicago in 1916: The hole world has changed since then but I have not Im no more at home in a big city than I was then an Im still lonsum

If I had a winter home in Hell and a summer home in Chicago I think Id spend my summers at my winter home There might be more people there but there couldnt be more smoke.

“Well, Sid,” he addressed the proprietor of the Mint from London in 1914, I shure am lonsum I wish right now I had my elbow on your bar with a couple of swallows of malt before me an som of the old bunch around Id surtenley loosen up som talk If I stay in this camp long Il start talking to my self.

 

In a larger sense, Russell was homesick for the old days. “Cow business is almost history now,” he wrote a former cowhand in 1910, “an there’s no need for men like us- you punch cows in a show and I ride on canvis.” Painting was a means of reliving memories. It might not be as good as the real thing, but it was certainly the best substitute.

An inspired raconteur, judged peerless by his listeners, Charlie Russell had one great ambition as an artist: to be a storyteller in ink, paint, and clay. Absolute realism was the one artistic criterion that he consistently espoused. When a young artist requested comment on a model of a horse he had made, Russell replied: “Study your saddle horse he will teach you more than I could tell you in a thousand years.” Technique was a purely practical consideration, and Russell had no patience with abstract theoretical discussions. “I got your letter and paintings,” he wrote his friend Joe Scheuerle in 1920. “They were wonderfull from an artistick standpoint not quite bold enough in stroke. Youd haved done better with a hay knife It would give more teck neque maby that aint spelt right but you savvy.” Yet Russell profited over the years from a willingness to accept the suggestions of others. During a visit to Montana in 1904, the late Colorado painter Robert Lindneux advised Russell to prepare a palette of only ten pigments and zinc white in order to achieve a clearer, more luminous effect in his oils. “From that date on,” one art historian has noted, “Russell’s canvases were brighter and the colors more true.” The story, in short, could now be better told.