Charles Marion Russell

American Painter and Sculptor

1864 - 1926

Photograph of Charles Marion Russell: 1907

Charles Marion Russell, also known as C. M. Russell, was an artist of the American West. Russell created more than 2,000 paintings of cowboys, Indians, and landscapes set in the Western United States, in addition to bronze sculptures. Russell was also a storyteller and author. The C. M. Russell Museum Complex is located in his hometown of Great Falls, Montana houses more than 2,000 Russell artworks, personal objects, and artifacts.

Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians

Russell's mural entitled Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians hangs in the state capitol building in Helena, Montana. Russell's 1918 painting Piegans sold for $5.6 million dollars at a 2005 auction.

Piegans: 1918

This outstanding early painting by Russell depicts a Piegan raiding party preparing for a dawn foray against their traditional enemies, the Crows. Although under the jurisdiction of the US Indian Bureau and the Indian Police, renewed hostility between the tribes had broken out in 1887, when the Crows moved north in a series of attacks across the Yellowstone River. The Piegan (one of the three Blackfoot tribes) retaliated with horse raids carried out by small bands of volunteers eager for both revenge and personal status. The open grassy plain studded with buttes and the distant snow-covered mountains suggest the landscape of the Crow reservation in southeastern Montana.

Russell had spent the winter of 1887-1888 with the Blood Indians, another Blackfoot tribe, on the Canadian border, and in 'The Piegans Preparing to Steal Horses' from the Crows he accurately depicts their pipes, coup sticks, feathers and bone ornaments, and the red-earth paint on their faces. Plains Indian culture was highly regimented, with a complex system of honors and sacred symbols obtained in dreams and activated by use and red-earth "seven paint", which gave order to their nomadic life as hunters. The modesty and mobility of their sacred objects reflected, as Ralph T. Coe observed, their "fragile relationship with space, the creator, and with their disciplined world". It was a relationship that captured the imagination of the young artist. His sensitivity to Blackfoot spiritual life is evident here as he shows the warriors' ritual preparation for the raid. As an early observer reported, "Each serious act was preceded by formal smoking."

The figures of the Indians and horses are carefully rendered and stand out in sharp focus against the thinly painted background, producing areas of abruptly ambiguous space (not unlike Degas' landscapes) charged with a feeling of impermanence. Russell was self-taught and his work always reflected the conceptual, linear touch of the primitive, but rarely to such expressive effect as here. The handling of light and color is also remarkably subtle, particularly in the delicate tones of the sky and the touches of red against the dark landscape.

Russell inscribed the painting with the buffalo skull, which appears in many of his early works. It was an ironic symbol, for it suggested not only the destruction of the vast herds that formed the basis of Plains Indian life and freedom but the eventual disappearance of the open range that had drawn him West in 1880.

Art was always a part of Russell's life. Growing up in Missouri, he drew sketches and made clay figures of animals. Russell had an intense interest in the Wild West and would spend hours reading about it. Russell would watch explorers and fur traders who frequently came through Missouri. Russell learned to ride horses at Hazel Dell Farm in Jerseyville, Illinois on a famous Civil War horse called "Great Britain". Russell's instructor was Col. William H. Fulkerson who had married into the Russell family. At the age of sixteen, Russell left school and went to Montana to work on a sheep ranch.

Russell returned to Missouri and Illinois in the winter of 1882 to visit family. Russell's cousin James Fulkerson, nine months younger, was persuaded to join Russell working on a Montana cattle ranch. However as Russell later wrote his cousin "died of mountain fever at Billings two weeks after we arrived" on 27 May 1883.

In 1882, by the age of eighteen, Russell was working as a cattle hand. The harsh winter of 1886 and 1887 provided the inspiration for a painting that would give Russell his first taste of publicity. According to stories, Russell was working on the O-H Ranch in the Judith Basin of Central Montana when the ranch foreman received a letter from the owner, asking how the cattle herd had weathered the winter. Instead of a letter, the ranch foreman sent a postcard-sized watercolor Russell had painted of gaunt steer being watched by wolves under a gray winter sky. The ranch owner showed the postcard to friends and business acquaintances and eventually displayed it in a shop window in Helena, Montana. After this, work began to come steadily to the artist. Russell's caption on the sketch, "Waiting for a Chinook", became the title of the drawing, and Russell later created a more detailed version which is one of his best-known works.

In 1896, Russell married his wife Nancy. In 1897, they moved from the small community of Cascade, Montana to neighboring Great Falls, where Russell spent the majority of his life from that point on. There, Russell continued with his art, becoming a local celebrity and gaining the acclaim of critics worldwide. As Russell kept primarily to himself, Nancy is generally given credit in making Russell an internationally known artist. She set up many shows for Russell throughout the United States and in London creating many followers of Russell's.

Russell the artist arrived on the cultural scene at a time when the "Wild West" was being chronicled and sold back to the public in many forms, ranging from the dime novel to the Wild West show and soon evolving into motion picture shorts and features of the silent era, the westerns that have become a movie staple. Russell was fond of these popular art forms, and made many friends among the well-off collectors of his works, including actors and film makers such as William S. Hart, Harry Carey, Will Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks. Russell also kept up with other artists of his ilk, including painter Edward "Ed" Borein and Will Crawford the illustrator.

On the day of Russell's funeral in 1926, all the children in Great Falls were released from school to watch the funeral procession. Russell's coffin was displayed in a glass sided coach, pulled by four black horses.

A collection of short stories called Trails Plowed Under was published a year after his death. Also, in 1929, Russell's wife, Nancy, published a collection of his letters in which was titled Good Medicine.

From: Charles M. Russell

"Between the pen and the brush there is little difference but I believe the man that makes word pictures is the greater."
Charles M. Russell - Letter to Ralph S. Kendall, November 26, 1919

Charles Marion Russell was an accomplished painter, sculptor, illustrator, and a gifted storyteller. Russell was born on March 19, 1864 in St. Louis, Missouri on the edge of the burgeoning Western frontier. As a boy, he crafted his own expectations of the American West by filling his schoolbooks with drawings of cowboys and Indians. Shortly before turning 16, he arrived in Montana where he spent eleven years working various ranching jobs. He sketched in his free time and soon gained a local reputation as an artist. His firsthand experience as a ranch hand and his intimate knowledge of outdoor life contributed to the distinctive realism characteristic of his style.

In his Self-Portrait, painted in 1900, Russell stands with his feet planted solidly and his hat tipped back, he portrays himself as a stalwart yet open person. He wears the red Metis sash and custom made high-heeled riding boots that were a mark of his individuality, just as much as his quick wit, laconic speech, and gift as a raconteur - exhibited in his humorous short stories, and illustrated letters. Russell wrote, "I am old-fashioned and peculiar in my dress. I am eccentric (that is a polite way of saying you're crazy). I believe in luck and have lots of it...Any man that can make a living doing what he likes is lucky, and I'm that." Considered a sensitive, modest and unassuming man, Russell simply saw his great talent as merely "luck."

Self Portrait: 1900

In September 1896, he married Nancy Cooper, who became his business manager. Under her support and guidance, Russell gained national recognition and successfully marketed his art. Russell learned from observation, and his art improved dramatically after 1903 when he and Nancy began making regular visits to New York. It was here that Russell began working with a group of experienced illustrators, where he enjoyed being part of an artistic community - something he lacked back home in Montana.

Russell painted and sculpted in his log studio adjacent to their Great Falls home, filling it with his vast collection of Native American and cowboy objects. Russell completed all of his major paintings in the studio after it was constructed in 1903. Having the talent to successfully work in many mediums, Russell created whimsical wax animals and clay and plaster figures, but he also made more formal sculptures, many of which were cast in bronze. Russell enjoyed modeling animal figures on oddly shaped roots or branch fragments. Mountain Mother captures the playful nature of the cubs and the watchful, protective instinct of the sow.

Painting in a time when there was considerable interest in the West, Russell's works were popular because of their narrative subject matter, unique style, and dynamic action. In addition, he had the ability to paint fictional history.

American Indian women played important roles in a number of Russell paintings, such as 'Indian Women Moving Camp', and he produced several versions of the subject. The seasonal rounds of Plains tribes provided the artist with the opportunity of depicting the Indian women proudly riding on horseback. He used a compositional group placed at a slight diagonal to the picture plane that is similar to his subject of Indian warriors. Thus he accords the same dignity to the women's work and reveals his admiration for the resourcefulness, independence, and courage of Plains Indian women.

Indian Women Moving: 1898

This painting depicts the women of the Blackfoot tribe moving camp. After the tipi was taken down, the buffalo hide cover was folded and usually placed on a pack animal. It can be seen lying across the frame saddle on the horse immediately behind the central mounted figure. The tipi poles were generally tied in bundles of five, and one bundle was placed on each side of a horse. The old woman to the right appears to be carrying some of the poles. Furnishings from the interior of the tipi, such as painted buffalo robes and willow backrests, were rolled and packed on a horse travois. The woman riding the paint horse seems to be carrying some of these articles. Both women sit astride large painted rawhide bags, known as parfleches (pronounced par-flesh or par-fleshes), decorated with long fringes in typical Blackfoot fashion. Generally, these bags would have held tools or utensils used in the household. The child riding between the women is a male, since the women of the tribe did not wear blanket coats.

Russell was one of the few artists of the American West to actively paint the daily life of Native American women. John C. Ewers, the noted ethnologist who studied the Blackfoot tribe, noted that a normal day's march was about ten to fifteen miles, and the average family of eight (two males, three females, and three children) required at least ten horses to move their camp efficiently. Prior to the arrival of horses on the northern plains in the mid-eighteenth century, dogs were used as the primary mode of transport. The wolf like dogs depicted in this painting were often used as guards once the camp had settled for the night. Unlike other plains tribes, the Blackfeet refused to eat dog meat.

Charlie Russell became not only the favorite son of his home state of Montana, but also the personification of the West itself. 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. He wanted it known that he had taken part in the Old West, and was a better man for it. Even as an internationally known western artist, Russell cherished - far more than his skills - his friendships and his place as a peer among common people.

Russell completed approximately 4,000 artworks during his lifetime. Living 46 years in the West, he knew his subject matter intimately, setting the standard for many western artists to follow. Charles M. Russell died in Great Falls, Montana on October 24, 1926.

Charles Russell was William E. Weiss's (1913-1985) favorite artist, and he appreciated Russell's dedication to preserving the Old West. Mr. Weiss' many special gifts of Russell artwork can be enjoyed in the Charles M. Russell Wing of the Whitney Gallery of Western Art.

A Cree Indian: ca 1905

A Desperate Stand: 1898

The discovery of gold in southwestern Montana in 1862 brought a flood of prospectors to the region. Unfortunately, it also brought numerous conflicts with the indigenous native people who lived and roamed there. By the summer of 1864, the year that the Montana Territory was established, groups of prospectors and other travelers were being attacked by hostile Indians. Part of this activity was due to Indian pressure from the east; the Lakota Sioux were being gradually pushed out of the Dakotas into the traditional territories of the Blackfeet and Crow, both sworn enemies of the Lakota. A number of the Indian raids on the whites took place in the area where Russell was to spend his formative years almost twenty years later. Although the raids usually involved the theft of goods or horses, there were also some pitched battles.

Here Russell depicted one of those battles, between a group of men with pack animals and a band of hostile Blackfeet. The men are surrounded, and some are using the bodies of their fallen horses as defensive breastworks. A Blackfoot lies dead in the left foreground, while the other members of his party circle in the distance. Russell created a tight central composition in the classic "last stand" mode, which owed much to the published visual representations of the defeat of General George A. Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in July 1876. A man in the very center of Russell's painting aims his rifle across the flanks of his horse directly at the viewer-placing the viewer, as Russell often did, on the side of the Indians.

A Slick Rider: 1905

An Unscheduled Stop: 1926

At Rope's End: 1909

Attack on a Wagon Train: 1902

Big Horn Sheep: 1904

Blackfeet Burning Crow Buffalo Range: 1905

Breaking Camp: 1885

This painting was among the first that Russell exhibited to the public. It represents one of the roundup camps in the Judith Basin of central Montana where Russell was then working as a cowboy. Some of the riders are roping their horses from the remuda, while others have saddled up only to find their mounts unwilling to carry the load. In this very early work Russell's vision is akin to that of a folk artist, where every detail of an everyday scene is painstakingly recorded. The rider second from the left, for example, has a California-style saddle with long tapaderos extending over the stirrups, while the rider on the bucking horse in the center has a far simpler Texas-style saddle. Even at this early stage, Russell's tentative efforts as an artist were being noticed. In January 1887 a writer for the Fort Benton River Press was impressed enough to characterize the young cowboy as "an artist of no ordinary ability" who had already painted "several of the most spirited pictures of cowboy life we have ever seen." The writer also mentioned that this painting had been exhibited in the art building of the Saint Louis annual fair the previous winter.

When Russell painted this scene, the great buffalo herds had only recently been eliminated from the northern prairies, and the open-range cattle industry was flourishing on lands that had been ceded by the Indian tribes. This painting depicts the rich grasslands north and west of the Judith River, where Russell first worked as a night herder and horse wrangler. The cowboys and their recalcitrant mounts are a type that Russell would later make famous in his works. It is interesting to note that only American cowboys customarily carried six-shooters, as they are doing in Russell's painting. Canadian riders rarely did so, and the Mexican vaqueros considered the practice unmanly. But research has shown that few American cowboys seem to have carried their weapons during the roundups, as Russell shows here, because they were mostly unnecessary for the work at hand.

Bringing Home the Spoils: 1909

Bucking Bronco: 1899

Buffalo Coat: 1908

Buffalo Hunt: 1895

Buffalo Hunt: 1919

Russell shared a long friendship with Will Rogers, the famed vaudeville performer, film star, and humorist. Charles and Nancy Russell began visiting California in 1920, when many entertainment figures and out-of-work cowboys were finding employment in the burgeoning western film industry. Although Russell wrote to his friends back home that Rogers took him to see the making of "outdoor pictures," it was Rogers and others who were star struck by the famous Montana artist's presence. Rogers, no small talent when it came to telling a story, pronounced Russell the greatest storyteller he had ever heard. Rogers later filled his spacious home in Pacific Palisades (near Malibu) with prime examples of Russell's art, including this magnificent painting of mounted Blackfoot Indians hunting buffalo.

Throughout his life Russell painted more than fifty versions of the subject of the buffalo hunt, and both the artist and his wife, Nancy, regarded this particular example as one of his finest efforts. As in his earlier versions of the subject, Russell concentrated on the moment when the mounted Indian hunters overtake a stampeding band of buffalo from opposite directions, forcing the animals to tumble over each other in panic and allowing the warriors to close in and pick off the cows or calves. Russell arranged the figures in a tight composition that occupies center stage in the broad Sun River landscape, with the blue-shouldered outline of Square Butte in the background. A Blackfoot warrior, his face and arms decorated with red paint, drives his arrows into a cow that has just trampled her calf. The Indian's white horse is brightly decorated; a feather has been tied to its tail as a talisman. According to some Indian sources of the day, the red handprint visible on the horse's neck was an indication that the warrior had "ridden over an enemy" in battle.

Buffalo Hunt: 1899

In his lifetime, Russell depicted the Indian Buffalo Hunt more than any other subject. He was fascinated by this legendary contest between man and animal, and he realized it represented, more than anything else could, the spirit of the wild frontier that was gone forever. Russell had arrived in Montana as a teenager in 1881, after the great buffalo herds had dwindled, and he witnessed the extermination of the animals in the wild just a few years later. He eventually learned many details of the buffalo hunt from his Indian friends, but he also was familiar with the artistic representations of the hunt by two important predecessors: George Catlin (1796-1872) and Carl Wimar (1828-1864). Russell owned copies of Catlin's books, which described Indian Buffalo Hunts in vivid detail, and he used Catlin's eyewitness descriptions as raw material for his own depictions. He also had seen Wimar's paintings of Buffalo Hunts while growing up in Saint Louis.

In this painting the Blackfoot Hunters, having cut off part of the herd, are attacking from two directions to force the frightened animals to turn into each other-a technique that minimized the danger of any riders or their horses being gored or trampled in the ensuing melee. On the left, a highly-trained "buffalo horse" surges up to the right of one animal and, in Catlin's words, gives the rider the chance "to throw the arrow to the left, which he does at the instant the horse is passing-bringing him opposite the heart, which receives the deadly weapon." On the right, a mounted warrior is set to drive his lance into another beast, which turns in desperation into the seething group. Although Russell's depiction seems to be fairly accurate. Later Blackfoot commentators maintained that the riders always used saddles for greater safety.

Captain Lewis Meeting the Shoshones: 1902

Capturing the Grizzly: 1901

Carson's Men
(aka Appraisal Values): 1913

Charles M Russell and his Friends: 1922

Charles Marion Russell: 1896
(Moving across the Plains)

Christmas Dinner for the Men on the Trail
(aka The Prize Shot): 1905

In this opaque watercolor, Russell effectively portrayed the below-zero chill of a Montana winter and the hard life of those who lived in it. The watercolor was reproduced by half-tone photolithography in a double-page spread for the December 14, 1905, issue of Leslie's Weekly, along with the following caption: "While the pack-train is crossing the bleak and snow-clad Rockies the guide shoots a stag, which makes a welcome addition to the mountaineers' larder." The men depicted actually seem to be cowhands moving supplies, possibly to a winter line camp. Russell's depiction of the dead animal, with its thick coat of winter fur, is wonderfully accurate. Note the way in which the lead rider's horse looks at the fallen quarry with a mixture of curiosity and alertness. Russell's mastery of opaque watercolor, especially the use of pale pinks and icy blues and wispy strings of Chinese white set swirling across the figures; helps convey a real feeling of the chill, windblown landscape. The use of opaque watercolor-or gouache, as it is sometimes called-increased in Russell's output after his initial trips to New York City in 1903 and 1904. It is likely he received some encouragement in this medium from his artist friends, who themselves were accomplished illustrators.

Coming across the Plain: 1901

Cowboy Bargaining for an Indian Girl: 1895

Deer at Lake McDonald: 1908

Driving Buffalo over the Cliff: 1914

Four Mounted Indians: ca 1914

His Heart Sleeps: 1911

Horse of the Hunter: 1919

In Enemy Country: 1899

In the Wake of the Buffalo Hunters: 1911

Indian Attack: 1910

Indian Camp Lake McDonald: 1908

Indian Fight: 1915

Indian Rider

Indian Scouting Party: 1897

Indian with Spear: 1905

Indians Hunting Buffalo: 1894

Indians on a Bluff Surveying General Miles Troops: 1897

Indians on Plains: 1903

Invocation to the Sun: 1922

Lake McDonald: ca 1901

One of Russell's favorite places to practice his modeling and to paint was his summer cabin on Lake McDonald, in what was to become Glacier National Park. The cabin, eventually named Bull Head Lodge, was built of pine logs with a shake roof stained to match the surrounding forest. A large balcony was built around three sides of the cabin, encompassing three large cedar trees. When the weather was good, Russell set up an easel on the porch. He relished the time he was able to spend close to nature, and it was here that he frequently painted smaller field sketches in oil that depicted pure landscapes. The subject of this sketch is the view one gets when standing near the shore of the lake directly in front of Bull Head Lodge. Russell enjoyed taking short hikes in the surrounding country with a portable pack containing sketching materials. Nancy Russell once recalled the joys of being in such a spectacular setting. "Sometimes we would watch a big soft cloud roll up over the Garden Wall (a great massif of rock above the lake). Soon a rain shower would come down the lake and quiet its surface, then the sun would break through and a rainbow would span the lake, a crowning glory of the great outdoors."

Lassoing a Steer: 1897

Mandan Warrior: 1906

Men of the Open Range: 1923

Mexican Buffalo Hunters: 1924

Mexico: 1925

Mourning her Warrior Dead: 1899

Navajo Trackers: 1926

On the Pond: 1918

On the Prowl: 1898

On the Warpath: 1895

Planning the Attack: 1901

Plunder on the Horizon
(aka Indians Discover Prospectors): 1893

In 'Plunder on the Horizon', a companion piece to 'Trouble on the Horizon', Indians emerge from a tangle of trees to spy on three prospectors panning for gold in the stream below. They are clearly calculating the odds and planning a surprise attack on the unwary prospectors, who are about to relax over a meal. At the time he painted this piece, Russell had not yet fully developed the empathy for the natives that he acquired later. Here he depicts the American Indians as pure products of the wilderness from which they are emerging to spy on the men below. Soon after Russell quit cowboying on the range and settled down, Indians almost always appeared in his art in a sympathetic light, restored to their pre-reservation vigor, free-roaming and proud.

Rainy Morning: 1904

Return of the Navajos: 1919

Return of the War Party: 1914

Return of the Warriors: 1906

Roping a Wolf: ca 1918

Running Buffalo: 1918

Scouting the Enemy: 1890

Smoke of a .45: 1908

Gambling was widespread in frontier towns, and some of the most active participants were cowboys. Livestock owners struggled to prevent gambling in the camps or on the cattle trails, but there was little they could do when the cowpunchers headed into town with their pay. Although some people railed against gambling as an evil vice, most frontier townsfolk looked the other way because there was profit involved. Indeed, the professional gambler was often viewed as a positive economic force, especially by the owners of saloons. Not surprisingly, the gamblers usually won, and the hapless cowboys often continued to play until they had lost all their wages.

This painting, a spirited depiction of a fracas between a group of cowboys and the inhabitants of a gambling saloon on the Montana frontier, attracted much attention when it was exhibited in Chicago and New York in 1911. The painting was originally created for the Ridgley Calendar Company, who exhibited it in their office window in Great Falls in February 1908 before shipping it out for reproduction. Russell's abilities as a painter and storyteller are readily apparent in this work. The composition of interwoven men and horses sweeps the eye from right to left and back again as the action reaches its crescendo. Blue smoke from the gunfire lingers in the air between the protagonists; the frantic horses lurch in opposite directions, but also in perfect visual counterpoint. Here Russell manages to compress a great amount of detail into a seamless story line. On the right side of the painting, a string of playing cards lies strewn upon the ground, giving mute testimony to the wages of sin.

The Beauty Parlor: 1907

The Bison Trail: 1908

The Broken Rope: 1904

The Challenge

The Cinch Ring: 1909

The Horse Thieves: 1901

The Lost Trail: ca 1915

The Renegade: 1900

The Salute of the Robe Trade: 1920

The Scouting Party: 1898

The Slick Ear: 1914

The Stranglers: 1920

The Surround: 1911

The Truce: 1907

Waiting and Mad: 1899

Watching for Wagons: 1917

When Blackfeet and Sioux Meet: 1908

A moment of furious fighting involving three individuals from two of the most feared tribes on the plains tells the history of war at close quarters. The outcome is uncertain as a Sioux, tomahawk upraised, attempts to intercede on behalf of his dismounted tribesman who has avoided the charging Blackfoot. Shield raised to ward off the thrusting lance, the downed warrior has a chance to fire into his enemy's unprotected midriff. For the Blackfoot this is a moment of grand heroism. He has already earned a coup for striking an armed enemy with his lance and, should he ride away safely, will receive high acclaim for his deed. The wounded pony resting on its haunches is an essential ingredient in this tale of war. The red hand print slapped on its neck tells us that the dismounted warrior, now fighting for his life, has himself killed an enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Now the tables have been turned and he is calling upon all his martial prowess to avoid the same fate.

When Law Dulls the Edge of Chance: 1915

When Shadows Hint Death: 1915

When the Land Belonged to God: 1914

When the Plains Were His: 1906

Worked Over: 1925

Source: Art Renewal Center

Source: Charles M. Russell Online

This page is the work of Senex Magister

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