Charlie Russell’s Lost West

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This is not to imply that Russell was simply a painter of action. On the contrary, he knew that the essence of good storytelling is understatement and restraint. As K. Ross Toole once remarked, “again and again his theme was portent , not action.” Indians clustered on a hill, observing their white foes in the distance. What they would do next was left entirely to the viewer’s imagination. A hunter, having shot a mountain sheep, finds himself in a predicament, for the animal has fallen onto an outcropping of rock a short way down the sheer side of the mountain. Meat’s Not Meat ‘Til It’s in the Pan Russell titled this 1915 oil, and he leaves the hunter scratching his head in eternal bewilderment. Carson’s Men (1913) depicted three fur trappers fording a river, the late afternoon sky a pale gold behind them, and ahead, by the looks on their faces and the way they hold their rifles, hostile Indian country. The scene is utterly quiet, yet filled with suspense. Mood, in fact, became one of Russell’s fortes. He could convey the tension in the air when Indian confronted white and an uneasy truce was all that stood between them and bloodshed. In The Toll Collectors (1913) a trail boss sits on his horse, both man and animal unnaturally rigid. The cowboy’s hand rests on the stock of his rifle as he studies a warrior signalling the Indians’ demands. In exchange for uncontested passage across the tribal domain the whites are to surrender a few beeves. Russell has frozen for all time the anxious moment of decision that will mean either compromise or violence.

 

As a storyteller in paint, intent upon capturing the feel of the old West, Russell drew primarily upon his own store of experience. Because he had lived so much of the western adventure in its waning years—and perhaps because his paintings are neither experimental in technique nor highly polished—it has become customary to speak of his subject matter and accuracy rather than his artistry. Thus his partisans insist that he was “ the documentary artist of the American West.” But they have overpraised him on this score, and far from shielding him from adverse judgments have left him vulnerable to a new critical onslaught. In point of fact, only a small percentage of Russell’s output was documentary—that is, based upon fresh firsthand observation—and the preponderance of this was done early in his career when his artistic skills were still rudimentary. His historical reconstructions, relying heavily upon his personal knowledge of Montana in the i88o’s, are studded with anachronisms, while his renditions of incidents that he only heard about secondhand from friends cannot be termed documentary. Nor, strictly speaking, can those twentieth-century works based on youthful experiences, since, as time passed, these experiences were filtered through an increasingly selective memory. All such work falls in the category of re-creation, not document.

But while the challenge to Russell’s reputation for strict accuracy constitutes a necessary corrective, it also tends toward a false disjunction. It is one thing to say that “in the pictorial record of the West, artistic realism is no substitute for historical truth,” as ethnologist John C. Ewers has done. It is quite another to establish what constitutes historical truth. The West is a concept: one part fact, one part myth, and larger than either. Both parts contain their quota of truth, and Russell, like Frederic Remington and the other Wild West painters, responded to them equally. In conceding as much, moreover, it needs to be pointed out that romanticism also tinted the vision of the Europeans Karl Bodmer and Rudolph Friedrich Kurz and the early documentarians George Catlin, Alfred Jacob Miller, and Paul Kane—all of whom visited the West before 1850—as well as the landscapists Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. In truth, romanticism left its impress on the work of all the major western painters.

Russell’s art, then, does not portray the West that was with photographic accuracy. It certainly portrays the way Americans have come to think it was, however, and it helps explain why they think so. Through the sensibility of one painter we can comprehend in immediate terms a stage in the creation of that supreme American cultural myth, the Wild West. Russell was its avowed devotee. He was subjective and emotional, not coldly objective and factual. Along with scores of others—artists, dime-novel writers, rodeo, stage, and Wild West showmen, and western tourist promoters—he helped standardize the content and give lasting shape to the myth of the Wild West in the days before the movies were a dominant factor. All of the familiar elements of the Western found their place in his work- Indians and buffalo, cowboys, prospectors, outlaws, mountain men, and, above all else, an overpowering sensation of freedom in the open under the big sky before the range was fenced in, the grass plowed under, the West tamed, and America grown out of her youth.