In Los Angeles in 1924 three celebrated creative men of the West—cowboy artist C.M. “Charlie” Russell (1864–1926), cowboy actor William S. Hart (1864?–1946) and cowboy artist-author Will James (1892–1942)—study Russell’s bronze The Bucker and the Buckaroo. “This sculpture,” says present-day cowboy sculptor Curtis Fort, “was also known as The Weaver or The Sunfisher, a term referring to really rank bucking horses when they twist their belly toward the sun.” St. Louis–born Russell, who spent time as a cowboy in Montana, is best known for his Western paintings and sculptures, but he also did some writing—including a couple of books about his alter ego “Rawhide Rollins.” James, born in Canada three decades after Charlie, also spent time as a cowboy (and a stint in prison for rustling) before becoming an artist in the Russell tradition.When James met Russell in 1917 and asked him how to break into the illustration business, Charlie was obliging. James went on to write and illustrate about two-dozen books, starting with Cowboys North and South in 1924. Russell’s stories, according to some critics, are more than a match for James’ tales in humor and authenticity, but they have been overshadowed by C.M.’s popular artwork.
Bill Hart, born in Newburgh, N.Y., was the top Western silent film star from 1915 until his last picture (Tumbleweeds) in 1925. He and Russell first met in 1902 when Hart was performing in a play at Great Falls, Mont. He became a devoted friend of Russell’s and a student of the artist’s work. In his pictures Hart dressed “realistically,” wearing cowboy outfits like those in Russell paintings, while many of the actors who followed him in the Western genre—think Roy Rogers and Gene Autry—preferred a more showy look. Russell, on Hart’s invitation, came to the sets to watch the shooting of some of Bill’s Westerns, which included On the Night Stage, Two-Gun Hicks and Hell’s Hinges. Russell’s paintings had a cinematic quality to them that impressed not only Hart but also other actors and such directors as John Ford. Hart was an honorary pallbearer at Russell’s funeral in 1926. The much younger Will James died of “alcohol complications” in Hollywood in 1942, four years before Hart died in Santa Clarita, Calif.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.