Whereas other artists celebrating the American West, such as Frederic Remington and William Ranney, spent little time witnessing that time and place firsthand, Charles Marion Russell knew the life of a rancher and horseback cowboy intimately. Born March 19, 1864, Russell, known more popularly as C.M. Russell, read everything he got his hands on that could teach him something about the still “Wild West” while growing up in Missouri. Explorers and traders coming back east through Missouri brought with them more stories that Russell would transform into sketches and clay figures. Russell’s painting Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia (above, from 1905) owes much to these men who seemed larger than life to the young artist. Although Lewis and Clark’s expedition was history when Russell was born, the yen to explore the mysterious plains still captured many imaginations, including Russell’s.
At the age of sixteen, Russell left school and traveled to Montana to work on a sheep ranch. Within a few years, the artist graduated to full cattle-hand status. Such hands-on experience gives paintings such as Bronc to Breakfast (above) a life and reality that Remington’s outlandish depictions of superhuman feats lack. Russell’s eye for detail as well as narrative impact create a mini-story in a simple image, here the disruption of a hearty breakfast on the plains thanks to an out-of-control mount. Of course, Russell indulges in some fiction as well, depicting only white cowboys in contradiction of the reality that most cowboys were African-American former slaves. I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt that he knew the true face of the cowboy but had to make some concessions to salability in a mostly white market. It would be fascinating to know just how aware Russell was of the work of Remington, whose widespread fiction easily outpaced Russell’s realism, forcing him to “catch up” as best as he could while remaining as true as possible to the subject.
And where there’s cowboys, there is, of course, Indians. In Ranney’s paintings, Native Americans are rarely scene and occasionally hinted at as a malevolent off-screen presence. In Remington’s paintings, Native Americans become the embodiment of evil itself, the savage villains to play the foil against the virtuous cowboys with their devotion to their almost Arthurian code of conduct. Russell paints Native Americans as neither saints nor sinners but equal participants in the battle between humans over the same stretch of land. He is clear-eyed enough to have seen the conflicts between different tribes, as in When Blackfoot and Sioux Meet (above, from 1905), rather than portray Native Americans as a monolithic force. The combination of men and animals struggling against one another gives this painting a narrative force and drama that verges on the cinematic. In fact, Russell knew such early Western film stars as William S. Hart, Will Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks, who collected Russell’s paintings as inspiration for their films. If Russell contributed to the mythic aura of the American West, it was inadvertently and the unfortunate result of painting the reality so well that it became hard to separate from the myth.