Charles M. Russell
1864 – 1926
“Betwine the pen and the brush there is little diffornce but I belive 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 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.”
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.
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. Weiss’s many special gifts of Russell artwork can be enjoyed in the Whitney Western Art Museum.
The “art” of letter writing:
A selection of Charlie Russell’s illustrated letters in our collection.
- Russell wrote this letter to artist Ed Borein from California where he met the celebrities mentioned.
- Painting- letter- Friend Joe [Joe De Yong]- Russell, Charles M.- pen and ink and watercolor- caption: Its plenty scary at Hollywood Its wonderful what on man can do with one gun if hes got blank cartrages Pasadina California March 30 1920 Friend Joe I got your letter and paintings they were wonderfull from an artistien standpoint not quite bold enough in stroke. youd have don better with a hay knife it would give more teck neque maby that aint spelt right but you savy Thars lots of movie [?] folks here both male and female more he oues that thair is cows the only cows Iv seem is the kind you moove up on with a stool an bucket saw Tom Mix and Bill Hart work both treated me fine Tom sent his regards to you and your onley say Neal Hart a few minuts he also sends regards have seen Bill Rogers work. several times Am going into the mountains with him sunday to see them make some real out door pictures If you ever want to paint frute roses are automobiles come to this country I forgot Bungaloos they grow here too this last groath origanaly came from India where they had to be snake and tiger proof but judging from the one we got Californa is like Irland well Joe Il tell you all about it when I git home which wont be long with best whishes to you three from we of the same [?] your friend C M Russell
- In addition to being a talented painter, Russell was a skillful storyteller who often illustrated his correspondence with sketches in pen or watercolor. He sent letters to his wife Nancy, to patrons and fellow artists, saloonkeepers and cowboys. Russell sent this card from Pasadena, California to Percy Raban, a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, as a thank-you for Raban's birthday wishes.
- Artist's letters often provide documentary evidence for historians, but Charles Russell's letters make a special art form uniting image and word. Usually light-hearted, the letters present Russell as the home-spun philosopher. The letter to Friend Tex is written to Tex McLeod, a roper in Buffalo Bill's Wild West, and contains a touching passage about Russell's adopted son.
- In 1907 Russell traveled to New York City to present his first one-man show i the art capital. His letter to newspaperman Percy Raban indicates Russell's preference for Great Falls, Montana, over the big city. While in New York, Russell saw William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Wild West exhibition at Madison Square Garden. OR Russell wrote about seeing Buffalo Bill's Wild West to his friend Percy Raban, a newspaperman.
- When Russell exhibited his paintings in London, he visited the sights and wrote back home to his friends such as Percy Raban.
- Artist Philip Goodwin wrote this illustrated letter to his friend Charles M. Russell. In it he mentions illustrations he is doing for Winchester calendars.
- illustrated letter- Friend Sarah- Yellowstone Falls (title of illustration within letter)- Poulsen, M. C.- pen and ink- oil on paper- Yellowstone Falls- printed on page: M.C. POULSEN/2319 Larkspur Court-Cody, Wyoming-82414-307-587-6862-fax-307-527-6611. hand written on page: 10 APRIL 2002/ "YELLOWSTONE FALLS"/FRIEND SARAH,/I CAN'T BEGIN TO EXPRESS MY GRATITUDE/FOR THE INVITATION TO DO THE "WORKSHOP AT THE WHITNEY."/I WAS OVERWHELMED BY IT'S SUCCESS AND THE ENTHUSIASM/WITH WHICH IT WAS RECIEVED./YOU ARE A MOST GRACIOUS HOST AND I/APPRECIATE YOUR KNOWLEDGE, HOSPITATLITY, AND ATTENTION/ TO DETAILS AS WELL AS YOUR HELPFUL STAFF THAT ARE SO/SUPPORTIVE./PLEASE ACCEPT THIS SMALL SKETCH FOR ALL YOU DO IN YOUR EFFORTS TO FUTHER THE APPRECIATION/OF THE ART OF THE "MASTERS". THANKYOU AND MAY GOD BLESS./WESTERNLY,/M.C./ OIL/PAPER
- In this letter to artist Edward Borein, Russell drew a self-portrait and a portrait of Borein. A native of California, Borein had moved to New York to work as an illustrator. Russell met him there and the two became friends, sharing their interests in art and the West.
- Signed UR: Choteau Montana/Dec 16 1914, LLC: Joe De Yong
- photographed with 16.98.2, the letter.
- Restrictions: May not be sold or traded under any circumstances. Title: (p. 1 and 2) (Two horses at top of first page).
- Russell wrote this letter to Nancy Cooper the month before they were married.
- Signed bottom center: CM Russell/(skull)
- Painting- letter- Joe De Young [Joe De Yong]- Old Time Senter Fire Man- Russell, Charles M.- watercolor and pen and ink on paper- Sketch caption: old time senter fire man Joe De Young I received your letter also model of [?] an photo of rider you modeled I think they were good your horse was a little short in the back but if you will study proportion you will come out all right most range horses measure the same. from the top of the head to the middle of the [wiltrers] would measure the same from there back to the coupling study your saddle horses he will teach you more than I could tell you in a thousand years the picture of your Father and I with the bunch in the Silver Dollar was no good it was so blured you could hardly tell one man from annother You will find enclosed a photo of my self and friend I have riddin this old boy nearly 15 yeas so you see hes a has been the saddle was made in 1888 by Meany of Cheyenne it is the old time Vaeala tree the spurs I ware Iv had for 32 years the raw hide ranes 30 and I have been in montan mearly 34 years so you see the picture shows a bunch of old has beens yores C M Russell give my regards to your father
- Joe De Yong (1894-1975) was Russell's only protege. Aspiring to be an artist, the nineteen year old De Yong sent some sketches and a photograph of his first sculptural model to Russell. In his reply, Russell gave the young artist advice on materials and methods for making a sculpture.
- In this letter to W. Hinckle Smith, a Philadelphia businessman, Russell describes two important oil paintings he displayed at New York's Folsom Galleries: The Range Mother (1908) and Sun Worshippers (1910).
Selected, Annotated Bibliography on Charles Marion Russell
Dear, Elizabeth. The Grand Expedition of Lewis and Clark as seen by C.M. Russell. Great Falls: C.M. Russell Museum, 2000.
Dippie, Brian W. Looking at Russell. Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1987. The Anne Burnett Tandy Lectures in American Civilization. Number Seven. Based on a series of lectures Dippie presented. Remains a valuable contribution to the Russell literature, because it analyzes Russell as an artist and identifies artistic influences on his development.
Dippie, Brian W., ed. Charles M. Russell, Word Painter: Letters 1887 – 1926. Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1993. The most complete compilation of Russell’s illustrated letters with commentary on the recipients and context.
Dippie, Brian W., ed. Charlie Russell Roundup: Essays on America’s Favorite Cowboy Artist. Helena: Montana Historical Society, 1999. Collection of 38 essays on Russell, from early press accounts to contemporary evaluations; brings together significant documents.
Hassrick, Peter H. Charles M. Russell. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989. Important analysis of Russell as an artist including stylistic development and major accomplishments.
Hassrick, Peter H. Remington, Russell and the Language of Western Art. Washington, D.C.: Trust for Museum Exhibitions, 2000. Catalogue of loan exhibition that brings together paintings and sculpture by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. Excellent comparison of the two most important artists of the West.
McCracken, Harold. The Charles M. Russell Book. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1957. Early narrative on Russell’s art and life.
Peterson, Larry Len. Charles M. Russell, Legacy: Printed and Published Works of Montana’s Cowboy Artist. Helena, Montana: Twodot Books, an imprint of Falcon Publishing; Great Falls, Montana: C.M. Russell Museum, 1999.
Russell, Charles M. More Rawhides. Great Falls: Montana Newspaper Association, 1925. More Rawhides is a sequel to Russell’s Rawhide Rawlins Stories.
Russell, Charles M. Rawhide Rawlins Stories. Great Falls: Montana Newspaper Association, 1921. Collection of short stories written and illustrated by Russell. Russell’s short stories give a colorful picture of the West and remind readers of Russell’s great talent for storytelling.
Russell, Charles M. Trails Plowed Under. Bison Books Edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996 (reprint of 1927 edition). “A Pair of Outlaws,” the short story that inspired Russell’s painting Escape, is found in this book. This edition includes all the same introductions and stories as the first edition, as well as an essay by Brian W. Dippie on the origination of Russell’s stories, including information on Russell’s original purpose for writing “A Pair of Outlaws” in 1908.
Stewart, Rick. Charles M. Russell, Sculptor. Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1994. A catalogue of the Amon Carter Museum’s collection of Russell sculptures that serves as the best resource for Russell’s three-dimensional work. Extensive photographs of original models and casts.
Taliaferro, John. Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1996. The most recent biography on Russell, based on extensive research.
Yost, Karl and Frederic G. Renner. A Bibliography of the Published Works of Charles M. Russell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971. This book contains the most complete bibliography of all the known published works of C.M. Russell. Best source for locating Russell’s work, if the title is known. (The Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, assisted by the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, is managing the process of compiling a catalogue raisonné on Russell).
Books for Children
Shirley, Gayle C. Charlie’s Trail: The Life and Art of C.M. Russell. Helena, Montana: Falcon Press Publishing Company, 1996. Biography of Russell relating his life as painter, sculptor, and storyteller. Photographs of the artist, reproductions of works of art, map, glossary, and bibliography. Ages 10 and up.
Winter, Jeanette. Cowboy Charlie: The Story of Charles M. Russell. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995. Picture book relating the life of young Russell from childhood and early days as a cowboy in Montana up to his decision to become a full-time artist. Winter provides charming stylized paintings and simple text to tell the story of Russell’s experiences. Ages 4 – 8.
Some of the publications in this bibliography are available for purchase from the Museum Store online, or you may order by telephone at 800-533-3838.
You can also consult your local library. Books not in the holdings of your local library can often be borrowed through inter-library loan.