While Charles Marion Russell’s choice of subject matter throughout his career often veered towards the depiction of the everyday life and customs of the cowboy, there was one institution that would hold a place of prestige in his heart, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Russell’s first encounter with them is said to have occurred in 1888 on a trip to Alberta, in which occasion the painter seems to have been rather impressed by their presence. The artist would have his second contact with the Mounties years later when traveling to Calgary in 1912, a meeting which inspired Russell to eventually produce not one, but four paintings in their homage.
This oil on canvas would be finished three years later in 1915 and is the last of the series, which bears the overarching theme of the Mounties always getting their man. In it, two Mounties have found a pair of horse thieves, who are being held by the officers at gunpoint. One of the outlaws, on horseback, has his hands high up in the air and being disarmed by one of the Mounties, surrendering unconditionally to their captors, while the other stands defiantly, with his hands on his waist and looking at the ground. In the background, a herd of horses grazes lazily, unaware of the action that defines their fate. Being the fruition of the Mounties’ investigative efforts, the painting closes the series with a glorious ending where the good guys beat the bad guys in the most pacific and effective way.
While Russell held the Mounties in high esteem and was quite impressed by their bright red uniforms, he is said to have more sympathy for and identified more with the outlaws, who in this context would signify the dying independent spirit of the West, on which civilization proper was quickly encroaching. It is almost as if Russell was nostalgic of a simpler time, one which he did not live, but went after chasing when he left Missouri but acknowledged the value of the civilization and law represented by the Mounties.
This painting was purchased originally by the residents of High River, Alberta, Canada, who bought it as a gift for the Prince of Wales, who had then recently acquired property there and had recently seen the work on an exhibition, becoming fascinated by the Mounties.
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