- Historic Sites
Charlie Russell’s Lost West
April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
Charles Marion Russell, born outside St. Louis, in Oak Hill, Missouri, of a locally prominent family in 1864, came west to Montana Territory four days short of his sixteenth birthday. Charlie Russell, the “Cowboy Artist,” died there in Great Falls forty-six years later, in 1926. Those forty-six years spanned a period of enormous change in the West, and Russell’s artistic importance resides in his record of that change, or, more precisely, in his comprehension of what that change meant for Americans and his skill in translating that understanding into paint and clay.
Russell’s escape west in 1880 was right out of the dime novels that fired so many youthful imaginations in the period after the Civil War. Charlie Russell was the American boy who grew up dreaming of breathless adventure and impossible heroism on the far frontier. But if he was like many other boys of his day, a captive to the spell of the West, there was one significant difference: he was to realize his every fantasy.
Congenitally restless, Russell was never able to settle into the accepted routine of a well-to-do family with judges, legislators, executives, and Yale graduates in its background. His parents’ expectations of him—a good education and an eventual management position in the family-owned Parker-Russell Mining and Manufacturing Company—conflicted with his own desires. Growing up near St. Louis, storied gateway to the upper Missouri River country—the High Plains and Rockies, the Idaho and Montana gold fields, the land of the Sioux and the Blackfoot—Russell had his heart set on going west. St. Louis’ intimate link to the whole romantic era of the fur trade was directly reflected in his own family line : on his mother’s side he was the descendant of the Bents- Charles, William, George, and Robert—whose activities out west, particularly the establishment of Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River in southern Colorado about 1830, were a part of family tradition. Charlie bridled at the restraints of school, played hooky, even ran away from home twice. He haunted the St. Louis waterfront to watch with yearning the swarms of men leaving on steamboats for fabled destinations far up the Big Muddy. As a last measure, the Russells sent Charlie to a military boarding school in New Jersey, Burlington College, late in 1879. But even military discipline was to no avail. Visions of the Wild West still flooded Charlie’s mind, spilling over into a sketchbook that he filled with crude drawings based on the work of such pioneer painters as George Catlin and Karl Bodmer. [See A Schoolboy’s Sketchbook , A MERICAN H ERITAGE , October, 1971.] Indians skulked across his pages, tortured hapless prisoners, and raced their ponies at a gliding gallop over a sea of grass. Since the stint at Burlington had conspicuously failed to divest Charlie of his western daydreams or curb his restive spirit, his parents, in resignation, gave him permission to go west in the company of a family friend. Perhaps a summer on a sheep ranch in Montana would knock the idle fancies out of his head and return him home, sober and mature, prepared to assume his educational responsibilities and a business career.
The Russells were right in one respect : Charlie did not take to sheep. A careless shepherd at best (“I’d lose the damn things as fast as they’d put ‘em on the ranch”), he was quickly fired from his job with the parting advice that he pack up and return home. But the land itself—the remote, still-undeveloped Judith Basin in central Montana—had already possessed him. Cut loose, he drifted into an acquaintance that was to influence the course of his life. A professional meat hunter, Jake Hoover, took “Kid” Russell under his wing. In exchange for shelter and food Charlie spent a year and a half as Jake’s assistant, soaking up lore about Indians, animals, and Montana’s past. The world was young and free then, and life could hardly have been better. In Russell’s fond recollection the culinary arts of the greatest chefs in the finest hotels would never equal Jake Hoover’s wizardry with a fry pan, and no scientist would match his understanding of “nature’s secrets.”
But it was cowboying that had most stirred Russell’s imagination, and as the cattle industry began to flourish in the Judith Basin he seized the opportunity to fulfill his dreams. In 1882 the Twelve Z & V outfit hired him as a night wrangler. Russell had found his occupation, and for the next eleven years he “sung to the horses and cattle” for a living. Though he claimed to be “neither a good roper nor rider,” he did take pride in his record: “I worked for the big outfits and always held my job.” In later years, in the erratic spelling and grammar that were a hallmark of his letters, he often poked fun at his inadequacies: I never got to be a bronk rider but in my youthfull days wanted to be and while that want lasted I had a fine chance to study hoss enatimy from under and over the under was the view a taripan gits The over while I hoverd ont the end of a Macarty rope was like the eagle sees grand but dam scary for folks without wings …
But the fact remained, the kid from Oak Hill, Missouri, had become a genuine cowboy.
Charlie Russell arrived in Montana when the land was still raw, exciting, and dangerous, just four years after Custer’s fatal stand on the Little Big Horn and only three after Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce were stopped at the Bear Paw, short of the international boundary line and a Canadian sanctuary. He had been in Montana for over a year when Sitting Bull’s band of die-hard Sioux, expatriate in Canada since 1877, surrendered to the United States authorities at nearby Fort Buford, Dakota Territory. But even in 1880 evidences of change were everywhere, and the years that followed merely confirmed first impressions. A decade after Russell came to Montana, on a frosty December dawn in 1890, the still-defiant Sitting Bull was shot to death while resisting arrest by Indian policemen garbed in cavalry blue. His killing sparked the last violent confrontation of any magnitude between red and white in America, the battle of Wounded Knee Creek. When it was over, General Custer’s old regiment, the Seventh Cavalry, had brought the long resistance of the Plains tribes to an end. Indian wars, a fact of American life since the first settlement was planted in Virginia, had passed into memory, and on reservations dotted across the West the tribes were left to mourn a way of life that would be no more. They were not alone in experiencing a sense of loss, however.
The United States had come of age since the Civil War. Scientific thought had injected an element of doubt into the comfortable flow of religious security for the postDarwinian generation, and once immutable truths had been exposed to the challenge of evolution. As industry had superseded agriculture, so the city had begun to displace the country as the locus of American life. In literature a lingering colonial mentality had been largely outgrown, and artists once burdened with a sense of cultural inferiority no longer felt so compelled to strive for approval from abroad. Manifest Destiny now scanned distant horizons, seeking its outlets overseas, as America moved into empire and a new era of global commitment.
The pace of national life may have justified the “Gay Nineties” label, but a pervasive uneasiness lay just beneath the gaudy surface. The popular vogue of the Vanishing West was one reflection of fin-de-siècle melancholy. Since ancient times special meanings had accrued to the West. It was not so much a region or a direction as a tantalizing concept implying possibilities yet untried, a future without limitations. Regret naturally accompanied the recognition that America’s last Wild West was rapidly disappearing, and a chorus of voices in the 1890’s sounded the lament. Francis Parkman was a fit spokesman for all the others. He had originally travelled the Oregon Trail back in 1846, the “Year of Decision” in which Americans realized their continental destiny. His account of his experiences among fur trappers and the free-roaming Oglala Sioux, published in 1849 as The Oregon Trail , had become an American classic. In 1892, the year before his death, Parkman attached a retrospective preface to a new edition of the book. Out west, he observed, “change has grown to metamorphosis. The sons of civilization, drawn by the fascinations of a fresher and bolder life, thronged to the western wilds in multitudes which blighted the charm that had lured them.” The buffalo were gone, along with the furbearing animals and the men who trapped them, and the Indian had become “an ugly caricature of his conqueror.” In short, “the Wild West is tamed,” and its savage charms have given way to “irresistible commonplace.”
This sentiment was in the air as the nineteenth century neared its end, and besides the writers a sizable group of artists discovered the Vanishing West. Of all their combined production, no other single work was more inclusive —or more explicit—than a pen drawing executed in 1898 by a relatively unknown artist, Charles M. Russell. Gathered together in it, as it were for the final time, are several representative frontier types: Indian, outlaw, stagecoach driver, cowboy, trapper, gambler, bullwhacker, and muleskinner. Facing them is Father Time, his skinny arm pointing off into the distance, banishing them to oblivion. Next to Father Time stands the haughty figure of Civilization, draped in a diaphanous gown, a scroll of “Laws” in one hand and a book of “Science” in the other. At her feet lies a reel of barbed wire; beside her are a tourist, box camera at the ready, and a rather effeminate cyclist. Behind this imposing vanguard of Progress a column of women do-gooders advances under a banner proclaiming’” Salvation,” grimly determined to domesticate the West. Above their ranks a smokestack belches its pollution over the prairies. Aptly titled Dame Progress proudly stands, the drawing illustrated a verse by cowboy poet Wallace David Coburn, addressed to the “Wild West”:
On a closer study of Russell’s sketch, we see that the representatives of the past and the future have congregated for the funeral of Dame Progress’ victim. A coffin rests on the no man’s land between them, surrounded by buffalo skulls and mantled with a small robe on which is written “ WILDWEST. LOVED BY ALL WHO KNEW HER .” Then, along the line of Father Time’s insistent arm, the eye at last settles on some ghostly forms fading into the sky. They are the spirit of the Wild West in its various manifestations—Indians pursuing phantom buffalo, a cowboy trailing a herd of spectral steers, a teamster with a covered wagon, a stagecoach racing full tilt across the bleak, forbidding sky.
All this amounts to a great deal of information—too much to be contained comfortably in one pen drawing. As allegory Dame Progress borders on the trite. At the same time, it has the concentrated impact of a political cartoon. It is a personal statement, and its message is unmistakably sincere. Charlie Russell belonged heart and soul with that downcast band of mourners gathered about the Wild West’s coffin. For even as he rode the open, unfenced range and relished his cowboy freedom, things changed dramatically about him. The thriving cattle industry helped bring the railroad, and the railroad brought the settler. By 1889 the Basin was crowded, to Russell’s way of thinking, and he pushed off north to the Milk River country just below the Canadian border. But there was no escaping progress, and the cowboy way of life was over for Charlie Russell by 1893. “The cow puncher,” he would write many years later,”… is as much history as Parkmans Trapper. The west is still a great country but the picture and story part of it has been plowed under by the farmer.”
It was time to commemorate what used to be. So Russell retired from the range and took up his art as a full-time activity. During his cowboy days he had never been without a pencil, a few brushes, and some paints. He had already managed to establish a local reputation as the eccentric cowboy who loved to draw, and a few of his works had been reproduced nationally. But now a sideline was to become his livelihood.
Though Dame Progress proudly stands came relatively early in Russell’s professional career, it provides a compressed statement of the theme that was to dominate all of his subsequent work. “The West is dead !” he would write. “You may lose a sweetheart, / But you won’t forget her.” At least he could never forget, and he painted so that others also might remember. As a man and as an artist he was dedicated to this cause.
With Charlie Russell even more than with most genre painters, it is impossible to divorce his work from his life. One was a direct projection of the other. Thus a second meaning attaches itself to his 1898 drawing of the Wild West’s funeral. Just three years earlier Russell had met a pretty young girl from Kentucky, Nancy Cooper, and his carefree, hard-drinking bachelorhood was rather abruptly terminated. Nancy, sixteen at the time and the product of a broken home, had been taken in by friends of Russell living in Cascade, twenty-five miles up the Missouri from Great Falls. Apparently Nancy was impressed with the cowboy artist at first sight: The picture that is engraved on my memory of him is of a man a little above average height and weight, wearing a soft shirt, a Stetson hat on the back of his blonde head, tight trousers, held up by a “half-breed sash” that clungjust above the hip bones, highheeled riding boots on very small, arched feet. His face was Indian-like, square jaw and chin, large mouth, tightly closed firm lips, the under protruding slightly beyond the short upper, straight nose, high cheek bones, gray-blue deep-set eyes that seemed to see everything, but with an expression of honesty and understanding.… His hands were good-sized, perfectly shaped, with long slender fingers. He loved jewelry and always wore three or four rings. They would not have been Charlie’s hands any other way.
Russell, in turn, was obviously infatuated with Nancy. He had been a maverick for long enough. It was time to settle down, and marriage, as he wrote a friend, is “the onley way to hold a bunch quitter, animals are easier found in pairs than alone.” In 1896 they wed.
Nancy came from simple stock. Her education was minimal, and little in her background, or in the round sweet face that looks out from their formal wedding portrait, betrays her driving ambition or the lump of iron at her core. Nancy began at once to domesticate her new spouse. Russell had been eking out a living from his art work for three years, and his prospects were still cloudy. With single-minded determination, Nancy proceeded to :ctify this situation; before she was done, she had made lharlie Russell one of the most spectacularly successful of ving American painters.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Though Russell was renowned as the Cowboy Artist, the elegiac strain in his work emerged most unmistakably in his Indian pictures. The sum of his personal western experience had been immeasurably enriched by one memorable winter (1888-89) spent among the Bloods in southern Alberta, for his six-month sojourn was suffused with the instant nostalgia of woodsmoke and tanned hides and the muted promise of escape from the humdrum of civilized routine that Indian camps have always held for Americans. While many of his Montana contemporaries subscribed to the frontier maxim that the only good Indian was a dead one, Russell, almost from his first contact with the Plains tribes while still under Jake Hoover’s tutelage, had come to cherish a deep and abiding admiration for them. He acquired a proficiency in sign language over the years, and was adopted by the Bloods as Ah-wahcous, “the antelope.” He made the effort to understand the Indian and thus could not share the simplistic views of his time and place. His affinity for the red man followed naturally from his own beliefs. A proud people, unvanquished even in defeat, the Indians were the true lovers of the land, the true Americans. For Russell, who himself had been displaced by progress, the Indian became the most compelling symbol of the West that was.
Russell delighted in depicting the classic Plains culture. Buffalo hunts, intertribal skirmishes, a warrior risking himself for a daring coup in battle (a necessity in a society that reserved all honor for the brave), horse-stealing expeditions, camp life, and the village on the move were among his favorite subjects. Even in his numerous paintings and drawings of Indians and whites at the moment of confrontation, wary and prepared for the worst, Russell tended to view the scene from the vantage point of the red man. Ensconced high on a bluff, a party of warriors would be intently studying some manifestation of white civilization below them—a fur-trade caravan, a wagon train, a fort, a riverboat, or a locomotive. Or they might instead be puzzling over wagon ruts or railroad tracks slashing across their buffalo range. In such scenes one brave usually has his hand clasped over his mouth in wonderment at the inexplicable ways of the white intruder.
Much less frequently Russell portrayed the lot of the contemporary Indian. His wax model In the While Man’s World depicted a Cree peddling buffalo-horn hat racks to keep from starvation. Despite the circumstances, his dignity remains. A pen drawing, done in 1899 and titled The Last of His Race , showed a wizened Indian patriarch squating on the ground, wrapped in a shabby blanket, his weight resting on a staff. A white girl, pedalling by on her bicycle, glances back over her shoulder at this pathetic relic. But he is oblivious to her curiosity, and on his countenance is a wistful sadness as he gazes at a buffalo skull and dreams of hunts past. In the distance, across the Missouri, is the skyline of Great Falls with one of the large stacks of a copper smelter spewing out black smoke. Again civilization and the old west have clashed, and this sketch is not so much a study in present degradation as a paean to all of yesterday.
A romantic but unsubstantiated tradition persists that Russel fell in love with a beautiful chieftain’s daughter during his winter among the Bloods and seriously considered marrying her. However, Russell did come away from the Blood a “white injun” at heart, often confessed to the temptations that the old Indian ways held for him. “I remember one day we were looking at buffalo carcus,” he reminisced in a letter to his cowboys friend T.c. (Teddy Blue) Abbot in 1919, “and you said Russ I wish I was a Sioux Injun a hundred years ago and I said me to Ted thairs a pair of us.” It was Russell’s highest compliment when he suggested that another white man was also Indian beneath the skin. “If theres aney thing in re incarnation,” he wrote Frank Linderman, himself a sensitive student of Plains Indian culture, when you were here before your name was Lean Man or Long Man Its a sinch it waesnt Linderman them days you wore a clout an smoked with the sun He was your God an you asked no better death seldom caught your kind in bed an when he came it onley ment a better country with more buffalo You wer not selfish your religion said all things lived again
Though Russell regarded letter writing as “no pass time” but “ WORK ,” his characteristic prose attained eloquence when he rhapsodized about the old West and the Indians who once epitomized its spirit. “I have eaten and smoked in your camp and as our wild brothers would. I call you Friend,” he began a letter to an eminent southwestern historian: Time onley changes the out side of things, it scars the rock and snarles the tree but the heart inside is the same In your youth you loved wild things Time has taken them and given you much you dont want. Your body is here in a highley civilized land but your heart lives on the back trails that are grass grown ore plowed under If the cogs of time would slip back seventy winters you wouldent be long shedding to a brich clout and moccasens and insted of beeing holed up in a man made valley youd be trailing with a band of Navajoes headed for the buffalo range
Of course it could never be, and Russell voiced his frustration to Bill Gollings, a fellow western artist: “Aint it hell Bill what we missed by coming late.”
Russell was never reconciled to change and “progress.” A George Catlin might willingly grant the necessity of civilization’s ultimate triumph in North America even as he was chasing down unspoiled Indians to preserve in paint. Charlie Russell could never be so equanimous. “Invention has made it easy for man kind but it has made him no better,” he grumbled, and one of his most revealing letters told of a visit to the world’s fair at St. Louis in 1903. It was “verry grand,” he said, “but it dont interest me much.” He went on to describe instead a poignant incident at an “animal gardens” near the fairgrounds: they have a verry good collection among them a cyote who licked my hand like he knew me I guess I brought the smell of the planes with me I shure felt sorry for him poor deval a life sentence for nothing on earth but looks and general princepales. but you cant do nothing for a feller whos hoi famely is out laws as far back as aney body knowes, eaven if he is a nabor of yours … with nothing to do but think of home its Hell thats all
Like that caged and lonely animal far from its natural habitat, Russell survived on memories of things past. But J. Frank Dobie, the Texas storyteller who, steeped in regional lore and rooted in a time and a place of his own, felt a special kinship with the Montana painter, perceptively noted that Russell’s resistance to change, his conservatism, “was not the conservatism of the privileged who resent change because change will take away their privileges. It was the conservatism of love and loyalty.” Personally, as Russell wrote to another western artist, Charlie Beil, “whats the use kicken I got non comin when I come west I got the cream let the come lattys have the skim milk.”
In Russell’s declining years his palette grew even brighter, and his skies blazed with brilliant sunsets. Color took precedence over exacting draftsmanship, and story yielded almost entirely to mood. Though he vocally disdained impressionism and, at his most philistine, stubbornly insisted that its practitioners simply could not draw, his own artistic evolution was away from a literal realism and toward a more impressionistic style. Besides a more experimental use of color, a few strokes of the brush now sufficed to imply gestures that would at one time have been rendered with exact precision. There were parallel changes in his sculpture, too. Russell had always found modelling “a lot easyer than drawing,” and his greater freedom in that medium allowed him to capture elusive effects—an “indescribable spirit ” according to one artistic contemporary. His two superb allegorical bronzes, The Spirit of Winter (showing a skeletal figure leaning into a stiff wind, his pack of wolves snarling around him) and Secret of the Night (showing a patriarchal Indian taking counsel from an owl perched on his shoulder), were both cast in his last year of life.
Some have detected in Russell’s later paintings a marked decline in quality, and his protégé Olaf C. Seltzer bluntly declared that after 1920 Russell was “but a hollow husk, a mere shell of his former self, either as man or artist.” Yet there is a certain Tightness about Russell’s work in his last few years. The cowboy artist had grown old and was plagued with poor health. He had achieved extraordinary success and popularity, but neither had ever much interested him. His youthful vitality was long since exhausted, and he dwelt increasingly in memory. Indians still watched from windswept hilltops in his paintings, but now they seemed content to bask in the glowing sunsets, with nothing more pressing on their minds than the enjoyment of the day’s fading warmth. Cowboys rode out to do their chores with the sky in flames behind them. In one oil done in 1925 a night wrangler stands just outside the circle of a campfire’s light, eavesdropping on the conversation for a few moments before he returns to his solitary rounds. Laugh Kills Lonesome , Russell called it, and the title takes on an added meaning. For the oil was finished the year before his death; most of the old-timers were gone; now, truly, they could live only through his brush, and his longing for them—for all of the West’s past—was in this painting. That lonely night wrangler was the artist himself.
Not long ago, a critic in arts magazine dismissed Charles M. Russell as a painter “characteristically drawn to the transitory and incidental, rather than to the quintessential. “The judgment was inadvertently acute, for Russell was the painter of “the transitory and incidental”—of those things that he knew would soon be lost forever to the American people. His constant theme was given shorthand expression in the buffalo-skull outline that formed part of his signature after 1889. “It’s kind of a symbol of the Old West that’s dyin’, just like the buffalo did,” he explained to an acquaintance. Since Russell’s day scores of western painters have made a practice of liberally sprinkling animal remains across the foreground of their pictures. What has become through repetition merely a decorative convention, in Russell’s work mirrored a reality that he had encountered when he first journeyed to Montana—“This country was dotted with buffalo skulls which brought to my Imagination many wild pictures”- as well as his deeper, instinctive understanding of the transience of any way of life : the new passes heedlessly over the bones of the old.
The Wild West was dead. From the welter of poets, writers, sculptors, and painters who joined in lamenting this fact, Charlie Russell emerged as the towering figure. While Frederic Remington, who was possessed of an ego as large as his talents, tended to view other western painters as poachers on his private preserve, Russell saw them more as valuable allies in a great cause. He took in as his protégés such young artists as Olaf Seltzer and Joe de Yong. He provided encouragement and inspiration for many others—Edward Borein, Charlie Beil, Will James, Will Crawford, Bill Gollings, Joe Scheuerle, Dan Muller, and Ace Powell, to name a few. When Edgar S. Paxson, ; another Montana artist, died in 1919, Russell was generous with his praise. “I am a painter, too,” he said, “but Paxson has done some things that I cannot do. He was a pioneer and a pioneer painter.” For Russell, that was recommendation enough. “His work tells me that he loved the Old West, and those who love her I count as friends.”
When Charlie Russell died in October, 1926, the victim of a heart attack brought on by a goiter condition that his own reluctance to face the surgeon’s knife had permitted to grow to damaging proportions, his host of friends converged on Great Falls for the last rites. Appropriately, it was a motley throng that watched the funeral procession pass by, Russell’s body borne along in a horse-drawn carriage out of deference to the old cowboy’s disdain for automobiles (“skunk wagons,” he used to snort, though Nancy owned an Oldsmobile). And when the mourners had gathered at graveside to pay their final respects to “the painter of the West that has passed,” it must have seemed for a moment as though Russell’s representation of a triumphant Dame Progress, done more than a quarter of a century before, had become reality. “Wild West,” his epitaph might well have read: “Loved by all who knew him.”