Charles Marion Russell's 1914 painting When the Land Belonged to God is a confident and nostalgic work from an ageing artist looking back on his youth as a rancher. Emerging in the late-nineteenth century as a gifted visual storyteller, Russell had an eye for illustrative images. Born in Missouri, in lands which were then seen as the distant frontier of an expanding nation, the artist began playing a starring role in the legends that were being built around him. Between his occupation as a rancher, Russell studied painting in his spare time. Before long, the artist had gained a popular reputation as a vivid painter of drama, and his intimate knowledge of his landscape made him a popular alternative to the city-bound tourists of the Hudson River School. Departing from the spiritual fantasy of the Romantic landscape painters, Russell was a figure born and raised on the growing frontiers of the American nation.
When the Land Belonged to God is the product of the artist's youth at the fringes of the Westward Expansion of the United States. Playing to an eager market, the artist’s sweeping vistas were crafted for an audience who had never seen the landscapes that were rapidly falling within their borders. Creating spectacular views of the American frontiers, Russell's reproduction of an idealized American west helped create the image abroad of America as a land of cowboys, jagged rocks, and tough living. So enduring were Russell's mythologized vistas that they would become the templates for the Western genre of cinema that dominated the industry just decades after his death. Painting for a populist audience, Russell's canvases were not challenging works of art, but they were accessible and technically brilliant narratives that unfold within the static frame of the canvas.
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