Cowboy artist Charles Russell captured the vibrant spirit of a short-lived way of life.
At the end of the 19th century, numerous artists set out to depict an American West that by then had mostly vanished. But the paintings of Charles Russell, which are featured in a traveling exhibition currently at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla., offer perhaps the most realistic glimpse of it. Often called the “cowboy artist,” Russell had moved to Montana in 1880 as a teenager; he worked on the range, taught himself to paint and, in 1893, devoted himself full-time to his art. Unlike his contemporaries, Russell talked the talk and walked the walk. Visually, “he tells a story as a gambler plays poker,” a fellow artist said of him. Where others captured the era with triumphalist strokes, Russell used a subtler, more detailed and more elegiac brush. His cowboys enjoyed a good sunset, but they also drank, played cards and in works like In Without Knocking, terrorized saloons and fell off their mounts. It was a West that Russell himself had seen and lived: flawed, unruly and dearly departed.
The Indian Wars were still underway when Russell first arrived in Montana, and tribes were being forcibly rounded up. Russell sought them out, visited reservations and spent much time in their company. He became a kind of visual intermediary, willing to view the landscape from the native perspective and present the peoples on their own terms. His paintings sought to capture “something of this life that is fast disappearing from the continent,” he said, and he understood that what was being lost was more theirs than anyone’s. In an early painting, Indian Maid at Stockade, the central figure appears self-possessed even as she hints at a venial transaction; she is attractive if not quite Romantic. As Russell’s career advanced, Indians became a more prominent theme in his work and he painted them farther back in time, at a less troubled juncture. In the Wake of the Buffalo Hunters addresses such a moment, as a party of riders considers a horizon that is dimming but not yet dark.
In Carson’s Men, painted in 1915 but set several decades earlier, three fur trappers are cast against the fading light. They are quintessential mountain men, symbolic of what Russell called “the West that has passed.” Such figures were a common theme in paintings of the 20th century, as increasing urbanization enhanced the glow of the century prior. Unlike most artists, however, Russell understood firsthand how strenuous and vexing frontier life could be. He was a superb miniaturist, able to convey both the humor and the hazard in a predicament. One party has dinner in sight, if only he can retrieve it from the precipice (Meat’s Not Meat Till It’s in the Pan); another is potential prey, hidden by fortune below the cliff’s edge (When Shadows Hint Death). In Russell’s paintings, survival is one part skill and two parts dumb luck.
Russell’s intimate familiarity with cattle roundups and camp life lent his work a degree of authenticity that his contemporaries could not match. The celebrated painter Frederic Remington had traveled in the West, but he painted it mostly in retrospect, from the vantage of his Manhattan studio; his West was a place of grace and focus—the home of the long stare—punctuated by the occasional shootout with Indians or a wild gallop across the canvas. Russell’s West, in contrast, was a moment-to-moment affair, likely, as in The Camp Cook’s Troubles, to flare into chaos at the drop of a tin pot. Horses bolt, sparks fly and often as not, Russell’s cowboys are caught off guard and off balance—and are perfectly rendered in awkward poses or in wild, twisting motions. To tame the West, Russell seems to suggest, one first had to tame the animal beneath you, and that was a touchy business indeed.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.