Charles Marion Russell was an artist of the American West who 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, an” “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 also watched the many explorers and fur traders 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 father’s 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.
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 friend’s 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 seen in the many detailed works he created of Plains Indians.
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 significant 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 mainly kept to himself. While 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, Charles was often seen carrying him about town and showing him off.
Russell died on October 24, 1926, at his home in Great Falls, Montana. Throughout 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 in Great Falls, Montana, houses more than 2,000 Russell artworks, personal objects, and artifacts.
C.M. Russell Museum
400 13th Street North
Great Falls, Montana 59401
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.
Adventures in the American West
Historic Artists in America’s History