Charles Marion Russell, also known as Kid Russel and “the cowboy artist”, was an American painter of watercolors, oil on canvas, as well as a sculptor. He became one of the most praised American artists to portray the Old West. Being a cowboy himself, Russell was able to explore subjects in his artworks with particular fidelity. The artist also lived for a period with many Native American tribesmen and maintained good relations with them. This experience gave him a level of understanding that resulted in non-mystified depictions of these people. As an entirely self-taught artist, Russell executed striking pictures with a keen sense of anatomy and color, working with blues, oranges, and violets, that resulted in incredibly atmospheric compositions.
Charles Marion Russell was born in March of 1864 in St. Louis, Missouri. While growing up, he was fascinated with the American Wild West and would spend a significant amount of time reading about it. Originally from Missouri, Russell left his school and home in 1880, at the young age of sixteen, to explore Montana and work at a sheep ranch.
Although his plans as a rancher fell through, he met Jake Hoover, a former hunter and the owner of a ranch in the Judith Basin, who taught him essential information about the West. Hoover and Russell became great friends and remained this way for their entire life. The artist lived in Montana for the rest of his days, except for a quick visit to his family in Missouri in 1882.
During this period, Russell continued to draw and document scenes of the American West he witnessed but was still virtually unknown as an artist. After a harsh winter, the ranch owner in which he worked sent a letter to the foreman asking about how the cattle were doing after the cold.
Russell took the opportunity and sent a beautiful watercolor postcard of the ranch, which later on was remade into a more detailed version, entitled Waiting for a Chinook. The owner was quite enthusiastic about the artwork he received and displayed it in a showcase of a store in Helena, Montana. This helped Russell gain visibility, and he began to receive commissions.
Russell was a skilled self-taught artist who aimed to portray the West as he saw it. In 1888, he lived with the Blood Tribe, now known as the Kainai Nation, derived from the Blackfeet Nation, and served as a great inspiration to his work. There, Russel got acquainted with several members of the Arapaho, Crow, Blackfeet, and Kootenai tribes.
He formed close friendships, hunted together, learned their language and the meaning of their emblems, which would later be present in his productions. Indeed, one of the unique elements of Russel's artwork is his representation of Native-American people.
Unlike the biased, mystified, and often even downright offensive depictions of Native Americans created by some artists of the period, Russel's sober and unidealized compositions were due to his level of understanding and knowledge achieved during his time living among these people. The artist often created compositions of historical events from a Native perspective rather than the most commonly explored non-Native point of view.
Russell traveled for a while until settling in Great Falls, Montana in 1892 to become a full-time artist. Four years later, he got married to Nancy, who helped him spread his name worldwide and get him art shows in London and throughout the U.S.A. In fact, his wife Nancy is considered essential to raising Russel's name to prominence.
Russell was not comfortable selling his art and would sell his artworks for risible amounts. However, Nancy was more proactive and bold in her dealings, managing Russell's commissions, copyrights, sales prices, and locating galleries for his artworks. Within a few years, the artist was receiving thousands of dollars for his oil paintings, considered astonishing values at the time.
In 1904, Russell took a trip to New York, where he picked up some tips from local artists and resulted in a dramatic change in his color pallet. Despite being completely self-taught, Russell's compositions began to show masterful handling of color, especially with tones of orange, blue, and purple; his brushstrokes also became increasingly apparent and painterly. Two excellent examples of this production are When The Land Belonged to God and Smoke Talk.
Charles Marion Russell passed away at the age of 62 in October 1926. Russell became known as an American inspiration to all, and on the day of his funeral, the schools of Great Falls canceled all classes, so the teachers and kids could attend and pay homage to the great American artist.
Charles Marion Russell, also known as Kid Russell, completed over 2000 paintings portraying the American West and over 4000 artworks all together, including drawings, watercolors, sculptures in clay, wax, bronze, plaster, and other materials. Not only was Russell a natural visual artist, but he also became an author and storyteller.
Today, Russell's artworks achieved an even higher net worth. In 2005, Russels Piegans was sold for astounding 5.6 million dollars, double the price of an item auctioned years earlier.
Referring to his wife Nancy, Charles stated:
"My wife has been an inspiration to my work," he once told a newspaper reporter [...] Without her, I would probably have never attempted to soar or reach any height, further than to make a few pictures for my friends and old acquaintances. I still love and long for the old West and everything that goes with it. But I would sacrifice it all for Mrs. Russell."
"A pioneer is a man who turned all the grass upside down, strung bob-wire over the dust that was left, poisoned the water, cut down the trees, killed the Indian who owned the land, and called it to progress."
"You can see what men made from the seat of an automobile, but the best way to see what God made is from the back of a horse."
"Guard, protect, and cherish your land, for there is no afterlife for a place that started out as Heaven."
- Charles Marion Russell