In Charlie Russell’s day, children had their distractions just like kids today — but it was long before electronic gadgetry. When he was growing up in Missouri and later Montana, his distractions were clay and beeswax that he would mold into animal figurines.
Charlie was born with artistic talent, and one day, a friend of the family who admired the boy’s creativeness handed him a slice of beeswax for making his figures. Thereafter, he’d carry a wad of beeswax in his pocket instead of clay.
When he was older, he could be chatting away with someone while fiddling with the beeswax in his pocket without anyone noticing. Then suddenly he’d pull his hand out and amazingly show a figure of a horsehead or snarling wolf.
Charles Marion Russell became known as The Cowboy Artist — a painter, sculptor, illustrator and gifted storyteller who left a legacy of some 4,000 works.
He did it with paint, bronze, ink, clay, wood and wax — capturing the personalities and events in his life during the twilight of a fading culture in American history.
He was born into a prominent family in Oak Hill, outside St. Louis in 1864. As a child he taught himself how to draw sketches and make animals out of clay that he scrounged from his dad’s brickyard.
He soaked up everything he could about the Old West — reading, riding horses and meeting the fur traders, explorers, soldiers and entrepreneurs heading west through Missouri.
When he finally could leave home, he headed for Montana to be a cowboy, arriving days before his 16th birthday — and stayed there for the rest of his life.
His first job was herding sheep for Jake Hoover a meat hunter and trapper — turned rancher. They remained lifelong friends.
Charlie loved Montana’s pristine landscape, the sights, sounds, animals, Indians and settlers. He soaked it all up — the good, the bad and the ugly.
He was there when it was the end of the trail for the Old West — sadly watching the slaughter of the last of the huge buffalo herds, loss of the grasslands, and the endless lines of new barbed wire forever closing down the open range.
He witnessed the tribes of the Great Plains lose their battle with the federal Army — and their loss of thousands of years of Native American culture.
Cowboys and Indians would soon be gone except in the books and Hollywood.
Charlie would do what he could to preserve their memory.
He never had any formal art training, but with his natural talent, he sketched, painted and sculpted the world around him.
During winter months when work was slow, he’d pay for his bed and food with his works of art.
He might have been content spending his life just being a cowboy and making enough money to get by. But then he met Sarah Cooper and everything changed. They got married in 1896 at a private home in Cascade, Mont., near Great Falls.
The Anaconda Standard wrote that “Charley Russell, the happy groom, is known all over the west as the ‘Cowboy Artist’ … (and) now more than ever before will confine himself to his profession. In the classic language of Charley, he’s ‘done settled down to business and can’t trot with the gang anymore.’”
They never had children of their own, but 20 years later, they adopted a son, Jack.
Charlie worked for 11 years as a cowboy and wrangler before becoming a full-time artist in 1893.
Well-liked, Charlie was an authentic Old West character. He described himself as an “eccentric,” joking, “that’s a polite way of saying I’m crazy.” He was also a generous soul — often giving away his artworks free if a pal really liked it, and would include a little sketch when writing a letter to a friend.
His wife was a bit less generous. Her gift was a keen business mind, so she took over the marketing of Charlie’s works.
His local fame soon became nationwide, as Nancy arranged for art shows in cities across America, and even London.
It was a time when everyone was fascinated with the American West, and Charlie Russell was just the man to show it to the world.
In Great Falls, the couple built a simple frame house — later adding a log studio where he did most of his work.
As both a young cowboy and artist, Charlie did his homework. There was more to being a cowboy than just riding a horse, sporting a hat and carrying a lariat. Like any sub-culture, cowboys had their ways, and Charlie learned them.
His paintings were rich with authentic detail. No tinsel-town interpretation. No spin. Just life on the plains the way Charlie witnessed it before it was all gone.
He rarely used models, but he filled his studio with a collection of Indian and cowboy gear — saddles, clothing, headgear, feathers, “horse jewelry,” weapons and anything to do with the Old West that would give authenticity and accuracy to his works.
Often, he’d sketch a landscape while out in the field to use later as a background in a scene painted in his studio. Much of the rest was from memory.
Sometimes Charlie Russell didn’t get it right. He was fascinated with Lewis and Clark and his troop of characters. He studied the Corps of Discovery journals and tried to depict the pre-photography events as accurately as he could.
One of those paintings was “Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia,” depicting the explorers, Sacagawea, York the black manservant and others meeting some Indians. Russell had never seen the Lower Columbia, and painted details based on the journal descriptions.
Amon Carter Museum of American Art says, “At this point in his life, Russell had not seen the lower Columbia, and the Indian objects he depicts are not quite right for the area… (but) are more typical of the Pacific coast Indian tribes found farther north, in present-day British Columbia.”
Nancy’s marketing efforts paid off. By 1920, they reached the $10,000 mark for a painting.
The couple would travel to New York to meet with the rich who loved his depictions of the Old West and eager to buy his paintings.
Charlie didn’t just hole-up in his studio. He roamed the great Montana outdoors and often traveled across the Canadian border to Alberta.
In 1888, he spent the winter there with the Blackfeet Indians on the Blood Reserve and studied their ways. He earned their trust and respect, and they adopted him as a brother in their tribe.
In the previous winter, a terrible snowstorm brought freezing cold and wind across Montana. Charlie was working for Stadler & Kaufman and in charge of the herds. Thousands of cattle and sheep that he was in charge of perished.
His boss, Louis Kaufman, wrote asking about the condition of the herds. Charlie didn’t write back. Instead, he drew a 2-by-4-inch picture of a forlorn starving steer hunched-over in the snow with its ribs protruding, watching the hungry coyotes circling nearby.
That drawing is now called “Waiting for a Chinook.”
After arriving at the ranch’s office in Helena, the little sketch soon became the symbol of the end of open range ranching on the Northern Plains.
There was nothing Hollywood about Charlie Russell. He was a real-life cowboy, roaming the backcountry, living with tough plainsmen, and appreciating the Native Americans whose land it once was.
All the while, Charlie observed the details of his surroundings so he could depict them accurately in his artworks.
“You can see what man made from the seat of an automobile,” he said, “but the best way to see what God made is from the back of a horse.”
One biographer said, “He wanted little to do with the present and nothing to do with the future, and chose to celebrate and romanticize only the traditions and virtues of the West as he envisioned it.”
Charlie Russell died of heart failure at age 62 in Great Falls, where he is buried. Nancy lived another 14 years. She and their son moved to Pasadena, Calif., where Jack became a highway engineer.
“The West is dead,” Charlie is quoted as saying. “You may lose a sweetheart but you won’t forget her.”
It’s hard to find cowboys like that anymore …
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Contact Syd at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Charlie and the Indians…
“Russell greatly admired the Northern Plains Indians, closely observing their ways during summer of 1888, when he lived near the camps of the Blackfeet, Piegan, and Blood Indians in Alberta, Canada. This experience affected him for the rest of his life, and it is reflected in the many detailed works he created of Plains Indian life.”
— C.M. Russell Museum
The way he saw it…
“A pioneer is a man who turned all the grass upside down, strung bob-wire over the dust that was left, poisoned the water, cut down the trees, killed the Indian who owned the land and called it progress.”
— Charles Marion Russell
Russell vs. Remington…
“Russell hated comparisons. His generous heart rebelled against comparing his work as better than that of other artists. Yet many critics have compared his Indians, for example, to those of Remington. Remington saw the West from a soldier’s point of view. He saw the Indian on the warpath – as enemies of the white man, as barbarians to be subjugated. But Russell saw an entirely different West. He saw it from the point of view of the pioneer who came West to make it his home, to enjoy its thrills and suffer its hardships.”
— Ramon F. Adams, author (1889-1976)
End of the trail…
“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…there was no escaping progress, and the cowboy way of life was over for Charlie Russell by 1893.”
— Brian W. Dippie, historian emeritus, University of Victoria, B.C.
Popular cowboy and artist…
Charlie Russell had a great sense of humor — telling jokes and pulling pranks. Reportedly, his friends liked his sense of humor even better than they liked his art. Before working full-time as an artist, he rode the range for 11 years, and fellow cowboys liked him because “if he liked a friend, there was nothing he wouldn’t do for them.”
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