Charles M. Russell – The Cowboy Artist

 

Charles M. Russell working in his studio in Great Falls, Montana.

Charles M. Russell working in his studio in Great Falls, Montana.

Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926) – An artist of the Old 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. Known as “the cowboy artist,” Russell was also a storyteller and author.

Also known as Charlie Russell, and “Kid” Russell, Charles was born in Oak Hill near St. Louis, Missouri on March 19, 1864 and from a very early age, he was drawing sketches and making clay figures of animals. He also had an intense interest in the Old West and would spend hours reading about it and dreaming of growing up to be a cowboy. He was also watching the many explorers and fur traders who were making their way west from St. Louis.

Russell’s family was prominent in the St. Louis area, his father owning the Oak Hill Firebrick and Tile works. Despite his fathers dreams of his son taking over the business someday, Charles was set on the wild west and ran away from home at the age of 14 to Montana, but he returned home.

Charles M. Russell, 1907

Charles M. Russell, 1907

After that the family sent him to a New Jersey military school, but that too only lasted a short while.  Just a few days after his 16th birthday, acknowledging  there was no changing his mind, Charles parents sent him to a friends ranch in the Judith Basin of Montana in 1880, where he worked briefly tending sheep.

Realizing that his dreams of the West were not going to be fulfilled with the sheep job, he soon teamed up with a local hunter named Jake Hoover, with whom he became a night wrangler for the Judith Basin Roundup and shared a cabin with for the next two years.

In 1882, by the age of 18, Russell was working as a cattle hand. During the harsh winter of 1886-87, when Russell was working on the O-H Ranch Judith Basin of Central Montana, he was inspired to paint. When the ranch foreman received a letter from the owner, asking how the cattle herd had weathered the winter, the foreman replied with 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 eventually displayed it in a shop window in Helena,  Montana, after which, work began to come steadily to Russell. In 1888, he spent the summer with the Blood Indians in Alberta, Canada, an experience that can be seen in the many detailed works he created of Plains Indians.

Buccaroos by Charles M. Russell, 1905

Buccaroos by Charles M. Russell, 1905

In 1896, Russell married Nancy Cooper and the following year, they moved to Great Falls,  Montana. There, working in a log cabin studio next to their home, Russell pursued painting and sculpting full-time. The studio was filled with Indian clothing, tools, weapons, cowboy gear, and other western “props” useful in accurately depicting the scenes of the Old West. It was here that his major paintings would be made. Within no time, Russell became a local celebrity and eventually gained the acclaim of critics worldwide. To this, his wife Nancy is generally given credit, as Russell kept mostly to himself. While he was working in his studio, she set up many of his shows throughout the United States and in London.

In 1916, Charles and Nancy adopted a son they named Jack. A doted father, he was often seen carrying him about town and showing him off.

Russell died on October 24, 1926 at his home in Great Falls,  Montana. Over the course of his life he completed approximately 4,000 works of art. Russell was also known as a colorful storyteller, and created a collection of short stories called Trails Plowed Under.

The C. M. Russell Museum Complex located in Great Falls,  Montana houses more than 2,000 Russell artworks, personal objects, and artifacts.

 

Custer Fight by Charles M. Russell, 1903

Custer Fight by Charles M. Russell, 1903

More information:

C.M. Russell Museum
400 13th Street North
Great Falls, Montana 59401
(406) 727-8787

 

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated May, 2017.

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