In 1897, a few months after Charlie Russell married Nancy Cooper, the editor of Western Field and Stream made a visit to the young couple’s Montana home and studio. He was mightily impressed, and wrote in the August 1897 issue, Mr. Russell is not only a painter, he is an artistic genius, and his modeling in wax is almost as great a surprise and delight as are his pictures’ [His] work needs only to become more widely distributed.
Born into a prosperous St. Louis, Missouri, family, Russell was a poor academic student, who spent his time drawing and sculpting animals out of clay and wax. Although he attended one semester at a New Jersey military academy, Russell elected to pursue a more practical education by moving as a teenager to northwestern Montana where he worked as a hunter, trapper and night wrangler on cattle outfits. By the turn of the century, his experiences in the Judith Basin and learning sign language while living among the Blood Indians became the subjects of his paintings, illustrations, letters, sculptures and books.
Russell’s folksy persona and years in the saddle were the source of numerous claims for veracity in his art. However, in truth, Russell looked backward, longing for and depicting the idyllic past, especially the pre‑reservation period when, as his titles suggest, buffalo were “monarchs of the plains” and “wild men” lived at one with the land. His adoption of a buffalo skull for his insignia reiterates that. In his heart of hearts, Russell identified with his Indian friends. As Russell noted in a 1926 letter (his spellings preserved), An old Injun told me once that real good brave men lived in thair harts not thair heads and I belive any red brother was right.
Created by — John Spencer, Director of Media & Content Production, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
Written By — Susan Hallsten McGarry