“Charley Russell was an artist who lived his own dream, who painted himself larger than life and then lived up to that reputation”.
“His stories and art created an entire world, not through the magnificent scenery of Bierstadt, the documentary genius of Bodmer or even the dramatic instinct of Remington, but through real people seen up close. His canvases tell the stories of his friends and their adventures; bucked off a bronco, caught in a stand off with a bear, or suffering the after – effects of a wild night in town.”
William H Goetzmann & William N Goetzmann The West of the Imagination, 1986 pages 258-9
Born in St Louis in 1864 Charles Russell went to become a cowboy in Montana at age of 16, but soon tired of work at Miller’s sheep farm, where it seems he was more adept at losing sheep than watching over them. He spent two years living with mountain man Jake Hoover in his cabin at the south fork of the Judith River in the foothills of the Rockies. Hoover made a living hunting supplying food to railroad crews. In this remote place their only visitors were Crow and Blackfeet hunting parties. A Doubtful Guest 1896 recorded one such encounter.
After returning to St Louis on his way back to Hoover’s, near Billings he joined John Cabler’s “cow oufit coming in to receive 1,000 dougies from the 12 Z &V outfit up the basin.” He was hired to “night wrangle the horses........and for 11 years I sung to the horses and the cattle”. (1) He was more successful at watching over horses than he had been sheep, and by day he sketched the daily cowboy life that was going on all around him.
In 1882 he experienced his first spring round up. Cowboy Camp 1885 shows he struggled with perspective and found difficulty in creating a tight compositon. (2)
In the savage winter of 1886-7 “The Great Die Up” occurred. In the early 1880s American and European entrepreneurs were attracted by the prospects of easy money to be made from the cattle business on the Great Plains. They used the Open Range system whereby costs were minimised by branding the cattle for identification instead of erecting fences to contain them. However the boom from 1880-4 resulted in overstocking of the range, the prairie grasses could not cope with the influx of grazing animals. A Drought in the summer of 1885 was followed by a harsh winter the following year. With the little forage hidden by snow the cattle wandered aimlessly in search of food, not having the bison’s inbuilt tendency to clear the ground to reveal the grass.:
“A buffalo feeding in deep snow presses his nose downward, swinging his head back and forth to clear a trench to the grass”. (3) Cattle had no such inbuilt inclination.
Russell’s employer Louis Kaufman lost all his 5,000 head of cattle, not an uncommon outcome. He recorded the savage winter in Waiting for a Chinook 1887 which was sent to Helena as a visual explanation of what had happened
After this the cattle business was dead, so he went north and spent winter 1887 with the Blood, a branch of the Blackfeet Medicine Whip, an elder, told him stories of great Blackfeet hunting and raiding parties. These inspired his When the Sioux and the Blackfeet Meet 1903
Brian Dippie has pointed out that he probably never witnessed a buffalo hunt himself. (4)
However this experience gave him an empathy for the native Americans:
“The Red Man was the true American. The history of how they fought for their country is written in blood, a stain that time cannot grind out. Their God was the sun.....their church all out of doors. Their only book was nature and they knew all of its pages”. (5)
When he retired from the range in 1893 at the age of 29 he made Great Falls his home, met his wife Nancy, and settled down with her in 1896. As he grew older his technique developed, his work was far more masterful. The background of Lewis and Clark meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross Hole 1912 has “distant mountain crests illuminated by the approaching dawn and the early morning cloud forms……cling to the wooded hillsides………….the perspective places the viewer in the midst of the action astride an Indian pony. His colours are now deep, rich and realistic” (6) The painting was 12feet by 25 feet.
Charles Russell remarked in 1928:
“Any man who can make a living doing what he likes is lucky, and I’m that. Any time I cash in now, I win” (7)
1. Harold McCracken The CM Russell Book page 133
2. William H Goetzmann & William N Goetzmann The West of the Imagination, 1986 page 264
3. Tom McHugh The Time of the Buffalo, 1972, page 243
4. Paper Talk: Charlie Russell’s American West Brian W. Dippie (Editor)
5. Harold McCracken The CM Russell Book page 130
6. William H Goetzmann & William N Goetzmann The West of the Imagination, 1986 page 278
7. Charles Russell, Trails Plowed Under, 1928 page 283