Charles Marion Russell was born in 1864. He spent his childhood in Missouri obsessed with drawing cowboys, horses and making animal figures out of clay. His parents allowed him at age 16 to drop out of school and move to Montana to live his dream and work on a family friend's sheep ranch. He lived in Montana for the rest of his life.
Working later on a ranch, carrying pencils and cheap watercolors in an old sock tied to his saddle, he made watercolor sketches. In response to a letter from the owner of the ranch asking how the harsh winter had affected the herd, an employee of the ranch sent one of Russel's small watercolors. The postcard-sized illustration painted on the bottom of a box showed wolves in the snow circling an emaciated steer against a stark winter white and grey landscape. The ranch owner displayed the card, sharing it with friends. The image became highly in demand. Russell made numerous copies of the work by hand, and later created a full-sized version of the sketch that was to become one of his best-known paintings, Waiting for a Chinook.
Having lived on ranches, among a branch of the Blackfoot tribe and watching the changes in the west, Russell knew his subject well. He also understood the intense fascination of his audience with the west, as he had experienced this same intense passion himself. Fusing his first-hand experience with an understanding of how images of the west captured the imagination brought his work to life.
Russell paintings often displayed his sense of humor. Camp's Cook's Troubles shows an out-of-control horse careening through camp, rider clinging to the saddle, knocking a coffee cup out of a cowboy's hand, upsetting a frying pan's contents into the campfire. At the same time, Russell's paintings like Whose Dinner depict an epic landscape with golden light filtered through the smoke of campfires, man in glorious nature.
Meat Ain't Meat 'Til It's in the Pan displays the humor of Camp's Cook's Troubles with the gloriousness of Whose Dinner. In Meat Ain't Meat 'Til It's in the Pan a man, shotgun resting on the back of his arm, lifts his hat to scratch his head as he contemplates the sheep he has just shot. The mountain sheep's head is twisted in a death pose. However, it lies out of reach on a ledge below the hunter, on the very edge of the deep crevasse. Distant mountains loom over the deep valley filling a third of the canvas. Snow melts under the subject's boots; a waterfall spills in the distance, ice sickles form on the edge of the cliff in the foreground. The two horses' tack and the cowboy's clothing are closely observed. The reins of the horse, the lift of the cowboy's plaid jacket, the tail of the horse suggest they are blowing in an icy wind. The lavender and yellow sky hints that evening has fallen, and now, dinner is somehow hours away, in spite of being almost within reach. Adding insult, one of the horses munches a copse of grass pushing its way up through the snow.
In 1892 Russell quit ranch life and moved to Great Falls, Montana to work full-time as an artist. In 1896 he married his wife. In spite of her young age, Nancy was 18 to Charley's 32; she became his representative. She is promoting his work throughout the U.S. and western Europe, continuing even after his death.
When she died, Nancy Russell bequeathed his log cabin studio, along with everything inside, to the city of Great Falls. It stands now as a museum where some of his original 4000 works of art, including paintings, drawings, and works in clay and bronze can be visited. More works can be seen in more than fifty museums throughout the U.S. and Europe. In 2005, his painting Piegans sold for $5.6 million and in 2008, The Hold Up sold for $5.2 million. More recent auctions set new records for Russell's work, where even small sketches in pencil sell for $25 thousand.
Recently academics have discovered the artistic and historical worth collectors of Western art have long cherished. Along with his fellow western artist Frederic Remington, Russell's work as a documentarian and his place in the history of the West have been more widely appreciated. Russell traveled to the locations he depicted in his paintings and recorded what he saw as it disappeared. He loved his subject and knew his audience—because of this, his works were widely reproduced. His vision of the west became our collective vision of the west.
K. Ross Toole, former Director of the Montana Historical Society, said "the real power of Russell's works does not reside in technique. It resides in the fact that he felt, to the very depths of his being, that an era was dying -- and that it meant something."
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