Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
When the Lord called Charlie home there
He said, ‘Kid Russell, I have a job for you.
‘You’re in charge of sunsets in old Montana,
“Because I can’t paint them as well as you can.”
GREAT FALLS, Mt. – “The Gift” by Canadian singer-songwriter Ian Tyson pays homage to Charles Marion “Charlie” Russell (1864-1926), considered by legions of people, ranging from cowboys to art connoisseurs, as the painter and sculptor who best depicted life as it was on the northern plains and mountains in the 1870s and 1880s.
He was good at sunsets in old Montana, but he also accurately commemorated the landscape, the wildlife, the Native American way of life, the ranching culture, the sudden action and the explosive violence of the frontier. western.
Russell was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but moved to Montana when he was 16 and lived there for the rest of his life. He was apprenticed to a hunter and trader for two years and worked 11 years as a cowboy and horse trainer, tasting the life he would recreate in oils, watercolors and bronze when he became an artist at full time in 1893.
Russell produced over 4,000 works of art and one of the largest collections of his works is in the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls.
Various elements make up the CM Russell Museum. Permanent exhibits are devoted to the American bison or buffalo and the role of firearms in the American West. There are exhibits of western art by people other than Charlie Russell. Outside the museum there is a sculpture garden, always free and open to the public, with six major animal bronzes by established artists, as well as a large sculpture by Russell himself.
A focal point for Russell fans is “Charles M. Russell: The Legacy,” a permanent exhibit featuring the museum’s collection of oils, watercolors, bronzes, clay models, illustrated letters, drawings to Russell’s pen and artifacts such as his saddle, cowboy hat and the woven belt he liked to wear.
Here, visitors will see on the walls in front of them famous paintings that they could only appreciate in the pages of books before.
Northern Plains tribes are depicted in “The Fireboat”, in which warriors on horseback see a steamboat for the first time, and “The Waterhole”, which details members of a band of migrants arriving at the water.
“Mad Cow” illustrates the dangers faced by working cowboys and “Gun Fighters” shows that whisky, gambling and loaded guns could be a deadly combination.
Mostly self-taught, Russell told stories with his art, tales based on things he experienced and witnessed and sketches he made at cow camps, but also stories he he heard, historical accounts and his own imagination.
A good game
Russell married Nancy Cooper in 1896, a decision as important to his career as his talent, his observations and his instincts. It was Nancy who promoted her artist husband, marketed his art, and cultivated buyers for his work at prices well above what he asked.
In 1900, Charlie and Nancy built a two-story Victorian frame house on Fourth Avenue North in Great Falls. Three years later, when Nancy grew tired of Charlie cluttering the living room of the house with his canvases, paints and accessories, they had an art studio built in a log cabin next door. It is this house and studio that make the CM Russell Museum unique, as they are located on the museum grounds and are part of its permanent exhibits.
The house and studio stand on their original sites and have been beautifully restored. It’s a treat to walk in the footsteps of Charlie and Nancy and imagine how their lives unfolded in these two buildings. An office on the first floor, near the staircase, marks where Nancy worked to advance Charlie’s career. A nursery on the second floor was commissioned in 1916 when the Russells adopted a three-month-old boy they named Jack.
The studio was built from surplus telephone poles. Once Russell started working there, he is said to have never completed a painting anywhere else. But it was more than a workplace. It was also a cave of men.
Russell’s buddies would gather there and after a day of painting he would roll a cigarette, sit by the fire in the stone fireplace and tell stories of his days in the saddle. Good times for the best cowboy artist of all time.
Russell died at his Great Falls home on October 24, 1926. During the funeral procession, Russell’s casket was laid out in a glass-encased carriage drawn by black horses. This trainer is on display at the CM Russell Museum.