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CHARLES MARION RUSSELL



The Insistently Self-Taught All-American
Or
iginal We All Call Charlie.

Like Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill Cody, Charles M. Russell—both the man and his art—personifies an American West that was already slipping away before his birth in 1864 to a prosperous St. Louis family. Although the nation was hellbent on slaughtering its bison to the brink of extinction and emptying its landscapes of the Continent’s indigenous humanity, it welcomed their artistic resurrection as symbols of its lost innocence and pre-Industrial way of life.

Probably no artist mourned the West’s passing more than Charlie Russell, who’d experienced the fenceless Great Plains during his 11 years as a night wrangler in cattle-boom Montana. His last cowboy job, in 1893, was as a “punch pole” on the Great Northern Railroad stock train to Chicago, walking along the top of the cars, keeping the cattle from lying down or trampling one another en route to the slaughterhouses. Although Charlie had quit school at 15, he arrived in Chicago to find three of his paintings hanging in the Chicago World’s Fair’s Montana pavilion, not far from Western works by such art-educated Easterners as Frederick Remington and George de Forest Brush. Naturally talented and with a keen-eyed ability to learn from example, Charlie was on his way to a 33-year career as a painter and illustrator of what quickly became idealized emblems of the Spirit of the West.

Charlie descended from slave-owning grandparents who’d bottled their own wine. He had uncles and cousins who’d been scalped, or who had taken scalps at the Sand Creek Massacre; another was a Pony Express rider. Raised on James Fenimore Cooper and Ned Buntline’s dime novels, Charlie chose the saddle and the sougan before he was 16, abandoning the heated parlor of his parents for central Montana’s Judith Basin beef roundups.

Wherever he went, Charlie carried a small brush and a cake of ink or a mixture of beeswax and tallow, tucked in a sock or pocket. The first inklings of future fame came in 1886, when his boss’s boss asked how his 5,000 cattle were faring during an exceptionally brutal winter. Charlie responded with a three by four-and-a-half-inch gray and black watercolor of a ribby steer stranded in snow and stalked by wolves. Titled Waiting for a Chinook, and eventually pinned on the wall of a Helena bar, this bleak icon of an overstocked range soon led to commissions from a wealthy St. Louis entrepreneur and Utica’s best drinking establishments.

Although Charlie’s lack of formal art training was much touted during his career, he’d seen and studied the works of many pioneering artists, including Peter Rindisbacher and Karl Bodmer, who’d come through St. Louis to document vanishing pre-Reservation Indian culture. A few, like George Catlin and John Mix Stanley, had virtually no academic training; some, like Charles Deas, had studied art back East; and others, including George Caleb Bingham, Henry Farney, and Carl Wimar, had attended the Royal Arts Academy of Düsseldorf, then in the throes of German Romanticism and its grand tableaux of morally ennobling themes set in monumental landscapes. In the States, this style evolved into the Hudson River School of painting.

Whether these works wereexhibited, or reproduced in popular periodicals such as Harper’s Monthly, Leslie’s Weekly, or Collier’s, Charlie learned composition and grouping figures from them; he borrowed themes and the minutiae of dress and accoutrements from his predecessors and contemporaries alike, including Frederic Remington, to whom he is often compared. Although he learned animal anatomy from looking at horses and bears in the flesh, and filled his studio with western saddles, old guns, medicine bags, cradleboards, bows, and travois, Charlie’s work, it’s fair to say, sometimes suffered from his lack of art-school instruction, especially in disciplining his palette, mixing colors, and applying washes.

Fortuitously, in 1903 he met illustrator John Marchand, whom he regularly visited in New York City; there, he looked over the shoulders of trained working professionals and listened to art directors at Scribner’s and Field & Stream. Improved skills, such as applying gouache to enliven his earth-toned watercolors, and quartering or foreshortening his horses and bison to create greater depth of field, transformed his work. He even cast his first of a string of bronzes at Brooklyn’s Roman Bronze Works.

Sculpture not only freed Charlie from color quandaries, it also offered the chance to work out the spatial relationships between moving figures in an action-packed composition. These he sometimes translated onto canvas: the sculpture Counting Coup became the painting When Blackfeet and SiouxMeet.

Once Charlie found a compositional structure that worked, he reused it, substituting an Indian and a buffalo for a cowboy and a steer. Basically a yarnspinner, he made large narrative friezes that read from left to right, such as the humorous The Hold Up and the busy Cowboy Camp During the Roundup, with its 50 men, 100 horses, buildings, tents, and chuck wagons. Like Wimar, Charlie sometimes used the tension-building compositional device of dividing a landscape into foreground and background with a diagonal gully or river, then juxtaposed the adversaries by backlighting one and setting the other in shadow, as in the frontiersman versus bear in Whose Meat? or the Indians versus encroaching civilization in Wagons.

Charlie understood the unifying strength of triangular configurations that also move the eye along. In works such as At Rope’s End, he arranges the characters in a triangle, gives them a broad landscape to work out the action, and then ties everything together with tightly strung lassos wringing in cows—or wolves, or grizzlies. He often placed the dominant figure on horseback, at the work’s visual apex, heading toward the viewer or moving diagonally across the canvas, followed by a spreading V of warriors or bison or horses, as in Bringing Home the Spoils, or women and children in When the Plains Were His. Positioning the figure’s waistline well above the horizon with the torso silhouetted against a big sky gave his characters heroic status as they lord over the sagebrush plains. Or he took a panoramic view, with the action dominated by Montana’s majestic buttes and far horizons.

Despite his penchant for flamboyant beaded buckskin shirts, gold rings, and a colorful woven Métis sash, the charismatic, square-jawed storyteller was adverse to self-promotion. Unbeknownst to them, his marriage to Nancy Cooper, when he was 32 and she 18, would provide the needed blast to his career. Unstoppable and ambitious, Nancy could “smell gravy” and negotiated ever higher prices for Charlie’s work, which they targeted toward “corporate cowboys”—“nature-loving regular men” who liked “real life.” Beginning with pencil sketches at $2.50 each and progressing to a guaranteed yearly income of $3,000 in 1908 for copyrights only from calendar maker Brown and Bigelow, by 1921 Charlie’s Salute to the Robe Trade brought $10,000—one of the highest prices then paid to a living American artist.

Between exhibiting in prestigious galleries from San Francisco to New York, the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and the Calgary Stampede, and inspired by Nancy’s insatiable need for the trappings of success, Charlie produced four of his own books (two published posthumously), illustrated 50 more by other authors, 100 articles. “She is the business end and I am the creative. She lives for tomorrow and I live for yesterday; so it is the combination which brings things today,” wrote Charlie.

Unlike trained artists, Charlie rarely worked from detailed preparatory pencil sketches, or painted studies in the field, or used actual models, except for posing himself in front of a mirror, or employing Nancy, or Young Boy, a Cree he’d met in the Judith Basin in the 1880s. Although Charlie did start taking photographs at Indian reservation powwows, and moved an articulated cardboard cutout of a horse and rider around a table lamp to study how it cast shadows, he mostly worked from memory and inspiration: “I try to paint true like it seems to me.”

In his determination to remain an uninfluenced “unspoiled genius,” Charlie found Impressionism “smeary”—a cover-up for artists who couldn’t draw. Of New York’s 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, which included paintings by Picasso and Kandinsky, he said, “It may be art . . . but I can’t savvy it.”

 

 

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After his 1914 exhibit in London, where his paintings hung across from machine-celebrating, past-hating Italian Futurists, he described his three-day visit to Paris as seeing “700 miles of pictures,” and declared, “I don’t see how a Dutchman or a Frenchman can teach me to paint things in my own country.”

Although the mood of his work and paintbox fell under the influence of Maxwell Parrish’s “high-keyed” palette, with critically questionable results, Charlie Russell stuck to his guns. By 1920, the Russells were wintering in Western-movie-crazed California, where he palled around with Will Rogers (whom he uncannily resembled) and movie stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Over time he’d replaced his whoop-and-holler cowboy episodes with nostalgic testimonies to the doomed, bison-dependent Blackfoot, Assiniboine, and Sioux. “Myth is the Mother of Romance and I am her eldest son,” he wrote.

When Charlie collapsed at home in Great Falls at age 62, the painting Father DeSmet’s First Meeting with the Flathead Indians was on his easel.

Brooke Chilvers, like Charlie, says she would “rather live in a place where I know somebody and where everybody is Somebody. Here, everybody is somebody, but down there [New York City] you’ve got to be a millionaire to be anybody.”

 

 

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