There isn’t much that hasn’t already been written about Charles Marion Russell, the Montana cowboy artist whom most art collectors, dealers and museums consider to have been America’s greatest painter of the Old West. Russell — born in St. Louis, Missouri, on March 19, 1864 — was also sometimes as well noted for his curmudgeonly feistiness and fierce independence as he was for his art. One example of that legendary stubbornness is brought out below in a little-known incident that occurred in the last days of his life — a tale that needs to be added to the Charles Russell legend before it is lost forever to the permanent pages of history.
The story began to unfold in the 1940s in the sleepy California agricultural town of Camarillo, which is about 50 miles north of Los Angeles and was best known for decades as the site of a mental institution. There, on a picturesque knoll north of town, stood St. John’s Catholic Seminary. On the grounds of that serene and peaceful religious retreat was a two-story structure built in 1939 that the people of Camarillo began to whisper about more and more, especially after World War II.
What they were saying, at first, was hard to swallow: Inside this building was a painting by the “Cowboy Artist,” Charlie Russell, that was rumored to be more than 20 feet long. But what in the world would a Russell painting be doing in a Catholic seminary in California? After all, Russell had done most of his cowboying in Montana, and he worked out of a Great Falls, Mont., studio during the last 24 years of his life. Moreover, if the giant painting was in the seminary, how did it get there?
One of the authors, Lee Silva, first heard the rumors about the enormous Russell painting one day in 1969. And so, with a mixture of disbelief and a historian’s curiosity, he went to the seminary and knocked on its main door. Here’s what happened, as Lee tells it:
I was guided to a mysterious-looking, imposing building — which I learned was named the Doheny Library — that sat alone, some distance from the other buildings of the seminary. When I was politely ushered inside by the curator, I was informed that the library was open to legitimate historians and researchers only, and not to the public — an explanation that accounted for the mysterious aura that the building had taken on to outsiders over the years.
On the way to an upstairs room, we passed a collection of framed autographs of every president of the United States. And that was only the beginning of my visit to this Old West Land of Oz.
Inside the second-floor “Western” room, I found myself staring incredulously at not one, but two 20-foot-long Charles Russell murals, set up high against the ceiling on opposing walls!
Below one mural was a large oil painting by William R. Leigh (1866-1955) titled The Happy Hunting Ground. And on a table to the right was the largest bronze that Russell had ever sculpted, titled Meat for Wild Men, depicting Indians on horseback attacking a herd of buffalo.
Beneath the second mural, there was a Frederic Remington oil painting titled The Navajo Raid, and on the other side of a door, a smaller Russell oil painting titled The Snow Trail.
There aren’t enough adequate words to describe everything that was in that one room, let alone the remainder of the building. There were framed watercolors of cowboys painted by H.W. Hansen, portraits of Indians by Grace Hudson, oil paintings of Indians by Henry Raschen, and in one corner of the room, an upright piano with a mural of an entire Indian village painted by Edwin Deming across its front and on its sides.
It was probably the biggest private collection of major paintings by major Western artists that had ever been accumulated in one room — all buried in a Catholic seminary!
On later visits, I was allowed to go into the walk-in vault and study the smaller paintings that were hanging on its walls and were also filed in dozens of drawers, including many Charles Russell letters and drawings, and many more Grace Hudson paintings.
In 1972 I was allowed to photograph some of the major works, including the two Russell murals. And that was how, eventually, I learned about what I like to call Charlie Russell’s last legacy.
The story of the Russell murals actually starts with another legend of a different sort — a man named Edward L. Doheny. Born on August 10, 1856, in Fond du Lac, Wis., Doheny had an instinct for prospecting and speculating that took him, as a young man, into the Southwest looking for gold and silver.
According to the late Arizona historian John Gilchriese, when Doheny was a down-on-his-luck hardscrabble prospector and miner during the early 1880s silver-boom days of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, he worked for $8 a day as a faro lookout for the legendary gambler-lawman Wyatt Earp. The two men would remain acquaintances for the remainder of their lives, getting together occasionally in Los Angeles in the 1910s and ’20s.
For more than 20 years, Doheny worked mining claims all over the West before he finally gave up the pursuit of the “yellow stuff” to try his luck drilling for black gold, a business that was in its infancy. Doheny was one of the first men to tap the riches of the vast oil fields in Southern California and in Mexico. And from 1892 on, he made so much money in the petroleum business that he couldn’t have spent it fast enough, even frivolously.
Doheny and his wife, Estelle, were fascinated by the American West, and they were grateful for what the West had done for them. By the turn of the century, they had begun building what was to become a fabulous collection of Western Americana — thousands of books on California and the West, photos, Currier and Ives prints and, most of all, paintings by practically every major Old West artist, living and dead.
The Dohenys literally filled their regal estate at No. 8 Chester Place in Los Angeles with books and artifacts. They expanded to include European art, and they even bought a rare copy of a Gutenberg Bible.
In time, Edward Doheny enjoyed the honor of having Doheny Drive, in Beverly Hills, named after him. He even managed to survive an infamous scandal of the 1920s, when transactions made by oilman Harry F. Sinclair — who had leased the vast federal oil lands of Teapot Dome in Wyoming — became the subject of a U.S. Senate investigation. Like Sinclair, Doheny also held leases to U.S. government oil reserves, namely at Elk Hills, in California, so he too had fallen under the investigative microscope.
The problem was that both Sinclair’s and Doheny’s leases were alleged to have been obtained illegally from Doheny’s old New Mexico mining friend, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall (1866-1944). In 1929 Fall was convicted of accepting bribes, sentenced to a year in jail, fined $1 million and forced to resign his cabinet position. Doheny and Sinclair were acquitted of any criminal charges involving the bribery of Fall, although Sinclair was later sent to prison for being in contempt of the U.S. Senate.
After emerging with only a hand-slap from Fall’s fall from power, and from what the history books have come to call the Teapot Dome Scandal, Edward Doheny went on amassing and spending his fortune. With all his millions of dollars of oil money, he could collect any darn thing he wanted.
Always something of a patriot, Doheny decided in the early 1920s that he wanted to decorate his “Indian Room,” which graced the second floor of his Los Angeles home, with a mural. The mural that Doheny envisioned would run continuously around the room, along the top of the four walls, and would be a panorama of American history — beginning with the landing of the Pilgrims and ending in the early 1900s with the discovery of oil in California.
Doheny commissioned German-born Detlef Samman (1857-1938), a fresco painter who had immigrated to the United States in 1881, to paint the continuous mural (actually four murals). With keen foresight, Doheny had Samman paint the murals on canvas that was attached to the walls, rather than paint them directly on the walls themselves, as Michelangelo had done at the Sistine Chapel. As Doheny wanted, Samman started with the Pilgrims, depicting their first meeting with the Indians on one mural. Samman then painted a second mural with two scenes on it — Indians hunting buffalo on the left and Indians playing a traditional recreational game on the right. Each mural was 28 inches high and 240 inches long.
That, however, was as far as Samman got. For some never-explained reason, the artist folded up his paints and pallet and simply quit. His abrupt exit left the murals in Doheny’s Indian Room languishing half-finished.
Edward Doheny had previously purchased some of Charlie Russell’s paintings and drawings, and the two men knew each other as more than just passing acquaintances. In light of Russell’s high reputation as a Western artist at the time, one can’t help but wonder why Doheny hadn’t hired Russell to paint the entire set of murals to begin with. But in any event, Doheny and Russell hand-shook a deal for Russell to finish the murals, starting from where Samman had left off.
The manner in which Russell decided to complete the murals may offer a clue as to why Samman left the work unfinished — for, instead of painting a long single scene or two scenes on a mural as Samman had done, Russell started painting panoramically, using just about every subject matter that he had ever portrayed in earlier works. It is only a guess, but it is possible that Doheny had wanted this type of panorama with a variety of scenes crammed onto his 20-foot walls to begin with, rather than only a scene or two for each mural.
Edward Doheny may have been a friend and patron, but Charlie Russell was his own man, and he had his own ideas about what the murals should look like. Russell wasn’t about to let any part of those last two enticing, empty, 20-foot canvases go to waste. According to his stepson Jack, Russell started off by painting the basic scenes of the murals on two 20-foot-long by 28-inch-high canvases at his studio in Great Falls, Mont., loosely rolling them up on spools as he went.
And what scenes they were! Russell painted a roundup scene, complete with clouds of dust and plenty of rangy Longhorns, plus a distant herd and cowboys on the horizon. Then he painted a branding scene, and he followed that with a lone wolf skulking through the brush, a herd of antelope foraging in a meadow and a far-off stagecoach trailing a plume of dust beneath the peaks of snow-capped mountains.
Russell went on to depict a watchful grizzly bear hidden in the rocks, a pack train headed by a lone rider with a Winchester ready, some deer in a draw, and then a mining-camp scene with two miners panning for gold and another cooking grub, their horses grazing in the background. While Indians are the focus of the scenes done by Samman, there are no Indians in Russell’s murals. Perhaps Doheny didn’t want any more Indians in his Indian Room. In any case, Russell did what he did best, and that was to paint Western scenes.
The trouble was, Russell got so caught up in his masterpiece that he forgot all about time and space. When the Cowboy Artist finally got the rolled-up murals to California, ready to install, he discovered that he had used up all the space that had been allocated for him on the walls of Doheny’s Indian room and considerably more.
As a faded old mimeographed Doheny Library account of the story relates, when Russell unrolled his murals, he discovered that he had “painted his way around the second floor and up the stairs to the [floor of the] third floor.” The account goes on to say: “When he reached the placer-mining scene of the Gold Rush days he was hard up against the [second floor ceiling], and there was no more room for the oil wells [that Doheny had wanted as a depiction of the discovery of oil in California]. Mr. Doheny was disappointed and felt that his mural was a failure.”
Russell’s murals, it turned out, had barely gotten him out of the gold rush era, let alone into the 20th century and the birth of oil wells in California. But he was plumb out of room, both literally and figuratively. And that is as far as the mimeographed history from the Doheny Library goes.
But there is more to the story, as Maureen Duffany and Rita Faulders, past curators at the Doheny Library, have related in personal interviews with Lee Silva. Charlie Russell was, after all, a man of his word, and he took pride in his art. Russell celebrated and romanticized the Old West and wasn’t one who believed in progress. But he had promised Edward Doheny that the murals would end with the discovery of oil in California, and that was what Mr. Doheny would get. So Russell “fixed” the last mural his way, finishing the project just a few months before his death from heart problems in his Great Falls home on October 24, 1926. Presumably, Russell died satisfied that he had kept his word to Doheny.
Edward Doheny died at age 79 on September 8, 1935. His devout Catholic wife, Estelle Doheny, took charge of all the art treasures, books, artifacts and ephemera that they had accumulated during their years together.
In 1939 Pope Pius XII bestowed the title of papal countess on Estelle Doheny. And, in that same year, Mrs. Doheny donated the entire Doheny collection, including the Russell murals, to St. John’s Seminary. The seminary had been built on the hill overlooking Camarillo. Mrs. Doheny had also donated the funds to construct the building that was to house the Doheny collection. Thus the building and the collection came to be named the Edward Doheny Library.
The Russell and Samman murals were removed from the walls at 8 Chester Place in Los Angeles and were installed in the new Doheny Library in Camarillo. Since the room that the murals were put into was more than 20 feet long, another artist, whose name no one seems to have recorded, painted some end pieces for Samman’s murals. No additions were made to Russell’s work.
And there the Russell murals hung — all 40 feet of them — two of the Cowboy Artist’s greatest works, hidden and obscure, appreciated by only a handful of people who were lucky enough to see them, and with Russell’s “fixing” of the last mural all but forgotten.
Estelle Doheny died on October 30, 1958, and her will stipulated that 25 years after her death, St. John’s Seminary would no longer be required to keep the Doheny collection intact. Accordingly, between 1985 and 1988, the collection was sold.
Much of the major Old West art, as well as the remainder of the fabulous Doheny bequest and countless volumes of some of the earliest known books on the history of California, was sold by Christie’s of New York in a series of auctions that took place in 1987 and early in 1988. The Samman murals reportedly sold in February 1988 for $5,500.
But the Russell murals and some of the other major works
of art were sold in 1985 in a private pre-sale before the rest
of the art and the library were placed on the market via Christie’s auctions. According to sources who still prefer to remain anonymous, it was hoped that the murals and the other major works of art that were involved in the pre-sale would end up remaining together as permanent additions to the art collection at Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum (now called the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum). But in a head-scratcher that allegedly had some officials at the Doheny Library and the museum dismayed and hot under the collar, the murals and additional major works by Russell, Frederic Remington and other artists ended up in the hands of private collectors.
Before the sale of the Russell murals in 1985, a professional photographer was brought in to shoot them, and a set of photographic copies of the real murals was mounted on Styrofoam and attached to the walls of the Doheny Library to
temporarily replace the real murals until the remainder of the vast collection was sold. No one, it seems, knows what happened to those photographic reproductions of the murals or who the photographer was.
The Russell murals changed hands several times after they left the Doheny Library, and their present owners were not involved in the controversy that surrounded the initial transaction that ultimately brought them the murals in 1989. The owners have even managed to keep the other major art works involved in the pre-sale together with the murals as the “crown jewels” of what remains of the Doheny collection.
The present owners prefer to keep a low profile. But they also felt that the public should at least have a first-and-last chance to see and appreciate Russell’s last great works. Accordingly, the murals were displayed in 1989 at the Ruidoso Downs Race Track and at the Museum of the Horse in Ruidoso Downs, N.M. They were then exhibited for a couple of months in Wichita, Kan., at the end of 1993, as well as at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage (now the Museum of the American West) in Los Angeles during January, February and March 1994. After that, the murals were installed in the private home of their owners, and it is not known when, or if, the murals will ever be put on public display again.
But wherever they may reside, the two great murals that Charlie Russell painted for Edward Doheny number among the artist’s last and most important works. And that brings us to story’s end — how Charlie Russell “fixed” his final great work of art in order to keep his word to Edward Doheny to end his panoramic murals with the discovery of oil in California.
As the years passed, the murals had developed a layer of dirt, cigarette smoke and patina, and it wasn’t until 1977, when the Doheny Library had them professionally cleaned and restored, that Russell’s long-forgotten fixing of his masterpiece was rediscovered. There, right at the end of the last mural, the restorers found three tiny oil derricks painted on the knoll of a hill, so small in comparison to the size of the mural that the derricks are not noticeable to a casual observer.
This was Charlie Russell’s depiction of the discovery of oil in California. And that was how Russell — in his own way — kept his word to his friend Edward Doheny. Thus, it is more than fitting to call the story of the Cowboy Artist’s method of fixing his murals, “Charlie Russell’s last legacy.”
This article was written by Lee and Susan Silva and originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Wild West magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!