Why Charlie Russell is the Most Influential Western Artist of All Time

Charles Marion Russell, also known as C. M. Russell, Charlie Russell, and “Kid” Russell, was an American artist of the Old American West. Russell created more than 2,000 paintings of cowboys, Indians, and landscapes set in the Western United States and in Alberta, Canada, in addition to bronze sculptures. Known as the “cowboy artist” because he was both a cowboy and an artist, Russell was also a storyteller, author, historian, advocate of Native Americans, cowboy, outdoorsman, philosopher, environmentalist, and conservationist.

Russell, left, in 1887. Courtesy of the Charles M. Russell Research Collection, Gilcrease Museum, University of Tulsa, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Born on March 19, 1864, in St. Louis, Missouri, art was always a part of Russell’s life. Growing up in Missouri, he drew sketches and made clay figures of animals. Russell had an intense interest in the “wild west,” dreamed of becoming a cowboy and living the exciting life of men on the range, and would spend hours reading about it. Russell would watch explorers and fur traders who frequently came through Missouri. He learned to ride horses at Hazel Dell Farm near Jerseyville, Illinois, on a famous Civil War horse named Great Britain. Russell’s instructor was Col. William H. Fulkerson, who had married into the Russell family. At the age of sixteen, Russell left school and went to Montana to work on a sheep ranch to try his hand as a cowpuncher. 

After a brief, unsuccessful stint, Russell left the sheep ranch and found work with Jake Hoover, a hunter and trapper who had become a rancher and who owned land in the Judith Basin. Russell learned much about the ways of the West from Hoover, and the two men remained lifelong friends. After a brief visit in 1882 to his family in Missouri, Russell returned to Montana, and lived and worked there for the remainder of his life.

A cowboy artist who was both a cowboy and an artist

He worked as a cowboy for a number of outfits, and documented the harsh winter of 1886–1887 in a number of watercolors. Russell was working on the O-H Ranch in the Judith Basin of Central Montana at the time. This was the perfect job for the young artist because it gave him the opportunity during the day to observe, sketch, and document the activities and excitement of the cow camps.

Russell in 1907.

The ranch foreman received a letter from the owner, asking how the cattle herd had weathered the winter. In reply, the foreman sent a postcard-sized watercolor that Russell had painted of a gaunt steer being watched by wolves under a gray winter sky. The ranch owner showed the postcard to friends and business acquaintances, and eventually displayed it in a shop window in Helena, Montana. After this, the artist began to receive commissions for new work. Russell’s caption on the sketch, Waiting for a Chinook, became the title of the watercolor. Russell later painted a more detailed version of the scene which became one of his best-known works.

Russell with North Plains Indians.

Beginning in 1888, Russell spent a period living near the camps of Blackfeet, Piegan, and Blood Indians in Alberta, Canada. Russell greatly admired the Northern Plains Indians, closely observing their ways during summer of 1888. This experience affected him for the rest of his life, and it is reflected in the many detailed works he created of Plains Indian life.

In addition to gaining much of his intimate knowledge of Native American culture during this period, it was also during his time living with the Blackfeet that he became an advocate for Native Americans in the West. He was an early and vocal supporter of bids by landless Chippewa to have a reservation established for them in Montana. In 1916, the United States Congress passed legislation to create such a reservation, now known as the Rocky Boy Reservation.

“Spending so many hours in the saddle gives a man plenty of time to think. That’s why so many cowboys fancy themselves philosophers.”

– Charles Marion Russell

When he returned to the Judith Basin in 1889, he found it filling with settlers. He worked in more open places for a couple of years before settling in the area of Great Falls, Montana, in 1892. All in, Russell worked as a cowboy and wrangler for 11 years before retiring in 1893 to make a living as a full-time artist.

A love of Montana and the West

In 1896, Russell married his wife Nancy. While he was 32, she was only 18. In 1897, they moved from the small community of Cascade, Montana to the bustling county seat of Great Falls. Russell spent the majority of the remainder of his life there. He continued with his art, becoming a local celebrity and gaining the acclaim of critics worldwide. As Russell was not skilled in marketing his work, Nancy is generally given credit for making him an internationally known artist. She set up many shows for Russell throughout the United States and in London, creating many followers of Russell.

Russell’s masterpiece, Wild Horse Hunters. Currently housed at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.

In 1913, Russell painted Wild Horse Hunters, which depicts riders capturing wild horses, each band of which is dominated by a stallion. He used as much color as an artist could on his mountain landscapes. As an artist, Russell emerged at a time when the Wild West was of intense interest to people who lived in cities, and cattle drives were still being conducted over long distances. As a life-long fan of the American West, Russell built a log cabin studio in 1903, and filled it with his collection of Indian clothing, utilitarian objects, weapons, cowboy gear, “horse jewelry,” and other Western props that depicted scenes of the Old West. 

Russell at home in his log cabin studio. Courtesy of the Charles M. Russell Research Collection, Gilcrease Museum, University of Tulsa, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

His log cabin was also where he painted images of the Old West that were later adopted by westerns, which became a movie staple. Russell was fond of these popular art forms and made many friends among the well-off collectors of his works, including actors and film makers such as William S. Hart, Harry Carey, Will Rogers, and Douglas Fairbanks. Russell also kept up with fellow artists of the West, including painter Edgar Samuel Paxson, painter Edward “Ed” Borein, and the illustrator Will Crawford.

He passed away on October 24, 1926 in Great Falls, Montana. On the day of his funeral, the children in Great Falls were released from school so they could watch the funeral procession. So loved and admired by the residents of Great Falls was Russell that his coffin was displayed in a glass-sided coach, pulled by four black horses. As the first “Western” artist to live the majority of his life in the West, Russell knew his subject matter intimately, setting the standard for many Western artists to follow.

An internationally recognized, but humble artist

Smoke of a .45, oil on canvas, 1908.

In his life Russell produced about 4,000 works of art, including oil and watercolor paintings, drawings and sculptures in wax, clay, plaster and other materials, some of which were also cast in bronze. The C. M. Russell Museum Complex, located in Great Falls, Montana, houses more than 2,000 of these works of art, as well as personal objects of Russell, and various western artifacts. Other major collections are held at the Montana Historical Society in Helena, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Sid Richardson Museum, also in Fort Worth.

A replica image of When The Land Belonged to God was displayed for many years in the Montana Senate.

Russell’s work, signed later in life with a small painted bison skull, has also graced public spaces and government buildings, most notably his mural titled Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians, which hangs in the Montana state capitol building in Helena. Russell’s work is also considered very collectible by those interested in the romance of the American West, with reproductions hanging in many restaurants, buildings and private residences. In fact, one of Russell’s 1918 paintings, Piegans, sold for $5.6 million at a 2005 auction.

Piegans, oil on canvas, 1918.

Charlie Russell is universally regarded as one of the great artists of the American West, born from an authenticity that comes from the fact that he opted to spend his entire life after the age of 16 in Montana.  His love of Montana and the life he observed and participated there shaped his art and his vision for nearly 50 years. And, in all that, Russell and his art represent the very essence of the West.

Until next time, mis amigos, happy trails! ★


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