Date posted:  January 27, 2016

At his death on October 24, 1926, artist Charles M. Russell left behind a grieving widow and stepson, a host of loyal friends and more than 4,000 works of art scattered among scores of pals, acquaintances and collectors. Included in his oeuvre were more than 500 oil paintings, nearly three times as many watercolors, over 1,300 pen and ink and pencil drawings of consequence, several hundred illustrated letters, and close to 500 sculptural models, only a fraction of which had ever been cast into bronze.[1]

During the decades that followed, the vibrant work of this distinctive American artist attracted new generations of admirers and collectors and by the turn of the 21st century, his paintings and sculpture had decorated not only the saloons and brothels of his youth but also the White House and the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the U.S. Department of State.[ILL 6.2] Today, nearly 50 American and European museums, great and small, own his work and several possess significant collections. Russell’s art has steadily increased in value as well, and in 2005 his oil masterpiece, Piegans, brought a record $5.6 million dollars at auction.[2]

The broad popular appeal and escalating prices of Charles M. Russell’s art, have not always translated into critical acclaim. Detractors have ignored or dismissed his work as narrative, nostalgic, crude, and irrelevant. Yet, over the past half century, an increasing number of scholars have found both meaning and significance in Russell’s artistic and literary portrayals of the American West.

For the first 14 years after his passing, Charlie Russell’s devoted and business savvy wife, Nancy, managed his memory as she had his career: with a steady hand and an eye toward the future—and the bottom line. Although robbed of her husband’s talent and captivating presence, when it came to selling his art, Nancy Russell understood the dynamics of the marketplace and the laws of supply and demand as well as any economist. And, as aspiring collectors would discover, she still drove a hard bargain.

In the three years that followed her husband’s death, Nancy organized a series of memorial exhibitions on both coasts and supervised the release of two books designed to perpetuate the memory of Montana’s “cowboy artist.” Russell fans welcomed the retelling of some of the artist’s favorite stories in Trails Plowed Under, published in 1927, and took delight in the humorous observations that peppered the host of illustrated letters his widow gathered from correspondents for Good Medicine, released by Doubleday, Doran and Co. in 1929. Nancy Russell also began work on a biography of her husband, first in collaboration with Dan Conway, a newspaper feature writer, whose overly sentimental treatment, “A Child of the Frontier, Memoirs of Charles M. Russell,” never resonated with publishers.[3]

The memorial exhibitions held at Santa Barbara and Los Angeles in the winter of 1927, New York’s Grand Central Galleries in 1927 and 1928, and Boston’s Vose Galleries also in 1928, were the last such events that Russell’s wife and business manager would oversee. Works from her personal collection and borrowed from such friends as Edward Borien, Philip Cole, George Sack, and Malcolm and Helen Mackay, filled the galleries. With paintings expensive and in relatively short supply, bronze sculptures accounted for most of the sales. The show at the Vose Galleries, for example, contained six times more bronzes than paintings.[4]

In 1929, Great Falls saloon owner and early Russell collector Sid Willis succeeded in getting a bill introduced in the Montana Legislature to place the artist’s likeness in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington. The bill passed and Governor John E. Erickson subsequently appointed a committee to find a qualified artist to do the work. Over Nancy Russell’s vigorous objections, the committee selected Great Falls sculptor Jesse Lincoln Mitchell for the commission. Continued wrangling over the merits of the proposed design, however, delayed the execution and installation of the artistic tribute to Charles M. Russell for three decades. Finally, in 1959, a bronze likeness of the Montana artist, rendered by Butte sculpture John B. Weaver took its place among other honorees in the nation’s capitol.[5

The books, memorial exhibitions and even the extended controversy over Russell’s statue helped keep the artist’s name before the public and stimulated the sale of his work, especially sculptures, which, unlike the finite number of paintings still in his wife’s possession, could be replicated with relative ease. After relocating with son Jack from Montana to Pasadena, California, not long after her husband’s death, Nancy Russell found it more convenient and economical, though slower, to have the artist’s sculpture cast at the Guido Nelli’s California Art Bronze Foundry in Los Angeles rather than at New York’s Roman Bronze works as before.[6]

In 1928 Nancy sold her home and several adjacent lots to the City of Great Falls for $20,000, and gave the city her husband’s log studio and its contents as a memorial. She served as curator of the inaugural exhibition the following year but otherwise did not play an active role in developing the museum.[7]

The stock market crash in 1929 heralded the Great Depression and with it a general deterioration of the art market. During the 1930s collectors adversely affected by the hard times flooded galleries and auction houses with paintings and sculptures, works by C.M. Russell included. Art that had once sold relatively quickly now languished in sales rooms or fetched purchase amounts below the asking price, causing many dealers to close their doors. The rest struggled to survive.[8] The economic calamities of the 1930s, also presented unprecedented opportunities for a few aspiring and well-heeled collectors of the art of the American West, including several Charles M. Russell devotees. Before his death in 1935, Will Rogers, the nationally known humorist, actor, and political pundit who had been a longtime friend and admirer of the Montana artist and a collector of his work, encouraged such wealthy Texas and Oklahoma businessmen as Frank Phillips, Amon G. Carter, C.R. Smith, and Thomas Gilcrease to add Russell’s work to their own fledgling collections.[9]

Oil man Frank Phillips, the first of this group to obtain a Russell painting, bought a large buffalo hunting scene (c. 1895) from Findlay Art Galleries of Kansas City in 1926. Three years later The Bolter, a cowboy roping scene purchased from William Macbeth’s New York gallery, joined a collection that eventually included works by other western masters such as Frederic Remington, Alfred Jacob Miller, William R. Leigh, and Joseph Sharp.[10]

By 1929 Phillips had established a private museum at Woolaroc, his country estate and wildlife sanctuary near Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The burgeoning collection of fine art and Indian artifacts that he assembled there reflected the oil man’s love of the history and romance of the American West and fostered the desire to eventually share his holdings with the public.[11]

During the 1930s, Phillips kept in touch with Nancy Russell, asking her to authenticate the Charles M. Russell works that he purchased and visiting her on occasion in Pasadena. After one such stopover in fall 1939, Phillips reminded the aging widow that he was “building up quite a little gallery” at Woolaroc and was “always in the market for his [Russell’s] works when the price is satisfactory.”[12] The entrée excited Nancy, whose health had begun to fail in 1936 and who hoped to sell her personal collection of paintings and sculpture to an institution that would perpetuate her husband’s memory.[13]

Later that year she priced her entire collection, consisting of more that 130 bronzes, almost 90 paintings and drawings, and a number of original models in wax and plaster, to Phillips at $250,000. To help facilitate a deal, she presented the oil tycoon with deluxe editions of Russell’s books, Good Medicine and Trail’s Plowed Under, both bearing her own personalized inscriptions. The copy of Good Medicine also contained the autograph of Phillips’ friend Will Rogers, who had written the work’s introduction.[14] Clearly moved by the gesture, the appreciative millionaire told Betty Rogers, the humorist’s widow, that he had “never seen finer books in my life. I was so glad to get them and so grateful that I darn near cried.”[15] The following spring Phillips reciprocated by sending Nancy a mounted bison head harvested from his ranch herd. She hung the mount in the studio gallery at her home, Trail’s End.[16]

The positive feelings engendered by the exchange of gifts, however, did not lead to a purchase agreement for Russell’s collection. The oil man considered Nancy’s price far too steep in a depressed market and in early 1940, countered with an offer of $100,000. When the widow stood firm, Phillips, a veteran dealmaker, withdrew his offer, then returned to the bargaining table with a reduced bid of $80,000. Through an agent, Harry Carr, Nancy worked in vain to get the oil man to raise his bid to $150,000.[17] Although interested in the collection, Phillips would not budge, remarking in February that such an investment, even at the price he offered, was risky, “in view of the chaotic conditions of the world today. There never was a time when people with money felt so uneasy as now, and they are holding on to their cash.” Art, he added, “is among the things which are not moving.”[18]

Nevertheless, the shrewd businessman kept negotiations alive, sending a trusted associate to examine the collection again in March 1940. The inquiry found Nancy further weakened by prolonged illness but still resolute on the price of her art treasures. “This seems to me to be the ideal time to join hands in making a perfect shrine to Charlie,” she wrote cheerily after Phillips’ envoy had departed. “You know that I want to do my part. The largest share of my work is done, keeping the collection intact, in spite of the pressure that has been brought to bear upon me to split it up. But I have always had the certain faith that the ideal place would be found for it as a whole.”[19] Believing that Phillips had the means to acquire and display the collection, she continued to hold out, calling her trove a “remarkably complete collection showing the evolution of one man’s work from youth to maturity, from pencil sketch to finished painting.”[20]

On April 9, 1940, Nancy informed Phillips that her old friend, actor William S. Hart, was helping negotiate a deal to place her Russell holdings in New York’s new Museum of Modern Art. That serious discussions of this sort ever took place seems improbable, however, given Russell’s subject matter and representational style and the museum’s dedication to modern art forms. Phillips, who was too astute and well informed to be swayed by Nancy’s exaggerated claim of a competitor for her collection, continued to bide his time and to buy C.M. Russell works from other sources.[21]

In January 1940, he had secured two vintage 1890s Russell oils from Los Angeles dealer C. Bland Jamison for $2,500. But after paying $425 for a fake Russell at the Parke Bernet auction in New York on April 18, a wary and weary Phillips broke off his sputtering negotiations with Nancy Russell and voided all previous offers for her prized collection.[22]

The widow’s health, meanwhile, continued to deteriorate and she died on May 23, 1940, leaving an estate that included a bank account containing a few thousand dollars, a small portfolio of securities, and a home full of her husband’s paintings and sculptures. Under the terms of her will, the fate of the estate passed into the hands of Pasadena stockbroker George R. Miller, who, along with Edgar I. Holland, served as executor and testamentary trustee of the estate.[23]

In a 1934 codicil to her will, Nancy Russell requested that her executors consider delivering her husband’s works to a worthy “person or museum in their discretion, subject to the condition that said person or museum shall exhibit them ‘properly and perpetually.’”[24] She also asked the trustees to consult with her close friends Betty Rogers, William S. Hart, and Ted C. Taylor (who died in 1938), regarding the final disposition of the collection. The deceased made further provision that if her holdings did not contain a complete set of C.M. Russell bronzes, the trustees were to have a copy of the missing works cast, the cost to be borne by the person or museum gaining the collection. None of these provisions was, however, binding.[25]

In fall 1940, George Miller engaged Los Angeles art dealer Leo Green to appraise the Russell collection. Green completed his miserly assessment on November 1, 1940. Despite higher comparable auction and gallery sales, he appraised 44 oil paintings, 35 of them by Russell, for a measily $2,645 and none for more than $250. The 53 watercolors and 136 bronzes in the collection fared no better, their values set at from $1 to $15 each, for a total of $924. A second, more generous evaluation in May 1941 by another local art dealer figured the collection’s worth at a higher though still meager figure of $24,670, not quite a tenth of Nancy Russell’s previous asking price or a quarter of Frank Phillips’ highest offer.[26]

Shortly after the first appraisal had been received, Robert L. Stivers, an employee of Miller’s firm, had told Frank Phillips’ representative, D.C. Hemsill, that the trustees of Nancy Russell’s estate wanted a minimum of $75,000 for the entire collection “in order to meet all the claims of the estate and to carry out the provisions of the trust created by Mrs. Russell’s will.”[27] At the same time, Stivers, who was not directly involved in the sale of the estate, said he believed “that the trustees would be willing to select what they consider the best portion of the collection to sell at a lower figure and at the same time accomplish Mrs. Russell’s desire to set up a memorial to her husband.” [28] The rest, he speculated, would be sold through various dealers and auctions to meet the estate claims and provide for the heirs. Armed with this information and apparently content in the belief that he would eventually be able to bid for the works he really wanted, Phillips continued marking time.[29]

Meanwhile, Earl C. Adams, a Los Angeles attorney whose firm George Miller had hired to represent the estate, traveled to Great Falls to see if there were any interested buyers in Montana. With none forthcoming, Miller, concerned about the lack of interest in the collection at $75,000, offered it to William S. Hart for $50,000. Although initially excited by the prospect, Hart eventually passed on the opportunity.[30]

For some unknown reason, Miller did not tender a similar offer to Frank Phillips. Instead, he sold the entire collection to C.R. Smith, the president of American Airlines in May 1941 for $40,000. Smith, a native Texan and a longtime admirer and sometime buyer of Russell art, had become aware of the collection while visiting his brother in California in early April. After viewing the estate, Smith had submitted a written bid for the art and personal effects of the artist. Miller accepted the offer and a probate hearing held a few weeks later confirmed the transaction. In the deal, Saunders Smith received 32 oil paintings, 45 watercolors, 9 pen and ink drawings, 131 bronzes and 95 plaster models, all by Charles M. Russell, as well as more than 100 other art objects and a number of the artist’s personal effects, including a quantity of horse tack and cowboy apparel.[31]

News that a rival had secured Nancy Russell’s vaunted collection for less than half of what he had once offered both surprised and miffed Frank Phillips.[32] Still smarting from the rude surprise, the oil man concluded in a September 1941 letter to William S. Hart and Betty Rogers that “the whole thing smells bad.”[33] Powerless to intervene had they wanted, Hart and Rogers could only commiserate.[34]

Meanwhile, C.R. Smith, who had stretched his monetary resources to buy Nancy Russell’s collection, immediately sold half for $20,000 to Homer E. Britzman, an oil man of modest means and a longtime admirer of Charles M. Russell. Three weeks later Britzman bought Trail’s End and its remaining contents from the Russell estate.[35]

Financially strapped as Smith had been by his new acquisitions, Britzman quickly found a trio of investors, each willing to purchase a one-quarter interest in his new collection. The original backers included Britzman’s former boss, Charles S. Jones, and businessmen Walter V. Dobbs, and Wallace K. Downey, who soon transferred his interest to Earl C. Adams, attorney for the Russell estate. The partners divided their holdings except for a group of painted models and related items that remained at Trail’s End until Homer Britzman’s death in 1953.[36]

A collector of Charles M. Russell’s art since at least the mid-1930s, Britzman soon began parting with some of his share of the Russell estate. His travels on behalf of petroleum producers in government service during World War II brought him into contact with other admirers of the Montana artist, including Frank Phillips, who remained prickly over the ultimate fate of the Russell estate. In July 1942, Phillips curtly declined Britzman’s offer to sell him 12 paintings and 16 bronzes from the art cache that Nancy Russell had held so dear.[37] “You may or may not know that at one time I was interested in the entire collection and made an offer far greater than was eventually paid by you and Mr. Smith,” the Oklahoman groused.

I own eight of Russell’s works and suppose I have seen practically every picture he ever painted; in fact I visited Mrs. Russell at Trail’s End a number of times and became quite familiar with the entire collection and her ideas as to price.[38]

In addition to buying and selling art, Britzman launched the Trail’s End Publishing Company in 1945. Within two years the new enterprise had published two portfolios of C.M. Russell drawings from the Nancy Russell estate, and two volumes of reminiscences, Memories of Old Montana and Trails I Rode, both by Con Price, one of Charlie Russell’s cowboy pals and a onetime partner with the artist in a Montana ranch. Rawhide Rawlins Rides Again, containing a selection of Russell’s previously published cowboy tales, followed in 1948.[39]

Britzman also collaborated with Texas writer Ramon Adams on Charles M. Russell the Cowboy Artist: A Biography, rushed into print the same year. This hastily written volume borrowed liberally from Nancy Russell’s earlier collaboration with Dan Conway and “Back-Tracking in Memory,” her own incomplete effort to tell her husband’s life story. Besides the regular printing, Britzman produced a deluxe, 600-copy, edition that included a dozen additional color plates in an envelope and a second volume containing a bibliography of 865 works by and about the artist, compiled by Illinois attorney Karl Yost.[40]

Homer Britzman used the art he purchased from the Russell estate to illustrate articles he wrote for Arizona Highways and the annual Brand Books of the Los Angeles Corral of Westerners International, books by other authors published by Trail’s End, and a popular series of postcards. The Pasadena publisher’s unbridled adaptation of Russell’s art for commercial purposes caused little stir until he began the wholesale casting of bronzes from the dozens of plaster and wax models in his possession. The reproduction of works that the artist had created for his own amusement, to work out painting problems or as gifts to friends, aroused the ire of C.R. Smith, Amon Carter, and Russell’s ardent protégé, Joe DeYong, among others, who wished to protect Russell’s artistic legacy and the value of their own collections. Although they believed the actions of the calculating entrepreneur had violated the terms of Nancy Russell’s will and were therefore illegal, Britzman died before such objections could be aired in court.[41]

The collecting of Russell painting and sculpture, meanwhile, continued unabated. Despite wartime uncertainties, Thomas Gilcrease, an Oklahoma oil man living in San Antonio, Texas, had, in 1944, acquired Philip Cole’s impressive art collection, consisting of more than 550 works devoted to the American West. Included in the lot were 46 paintings, 27 bronzes, and a number of illustrated letters by Charles M. Russell. The buyer and seller kept the transaction secret for three years while Gilcrease paid for his purchase in installments. Finally, in 1947, the collection was delivered to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Gilcrease had relocated his business operations and burgeoning assemblage of art and Americana.[42]

Oil man and rancher, Sid Richardson, another Texan attracted to the artistic genius of Charles M. Russell, also began collecting western art during World War II. With the help of Newhouse Galleries in New York, Richardson amassed a stellar collection that by 1950 included more than 50 Russell paintings. Most were early works of the artist and seven came from the estate of Russell’s longtime crony and Great Falls neighbor Robert Vaughn.[43]

Sid Richardson’s Russell holdings were soon overshadowed by those of his Texas friend, Amon G. Carter, a Fort Worth newspaper publisher who had also made a fortune in the oil patch. Carter had purchased his first works by the Montana artist in 1935, paying the Ehrich-Newhouse Galleries $7,500 for nine watercolors that had once belonged to George Niedringhaus, an early patron of the artist, and Niedringhaus’s brother-in-law Harry Hayward, one of Russell’s old schoolmates. The publisher had picked up additional works from galleries in New York and Chicago throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. In 1947, for example, dealer J.W. Young of Chicago sold the Texan 13 pen and ink drawings used to illustrate Carrie Adell Strahorn’s memoir, Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage.[44]

Amon Carter made his largest and most important single haul of Russell art in 1952 when he bought the famous Mint Collection from the New York gallery M. Knoedler & Co. The 76 paintings and sculptures had been gathered by Russell’s friend Sid Willis, a Great Falls saloon owner, who had wanted the collection to stay in Montana. Willis had parted with the Mint collection in 1945 and the heirs of the purchaser had eventually offered it to the State of Montana for $125,000. When, after several years of trying, the Treasure State could not raise the money, Knoedler acquired the collection and sold it to Carter.[45]

Although the Mint Collection eluded their grasp, Montanans did manage to garner the splendid group of Russell works, many of them collected directly from the artist, by Malcolm and Helen Mackay of Tenafly, New Jersey. Most of the collection, considered one of the finest in private hands, had been placed on extended exhibit at the new Northern Hotel in Billings, Montana, during World War II. In 1952, the Mackay family, who owned a ranch near the town of Roscoe, Montana, offered the Montana Historical Society the opportunity to purchase their entire art holdings for the modest sum of $50,000. This time the requisite funds were quickly raised and the Mackay collection became the cornerstone of the Society’s superb and still growing cache of Russell artwork.[46]

From the 1930s onward, the collecting of Charles M. Russell’s art was accompanied by an equally active effort to gather and publish information about the artist and his work. College professors James B. Rankin and J. Frank Dobie pursued such biographical details primarily for the pleasure of discovery and with a genuine desire to share the source of Russell’s genius with the public. Homer E. Britzman and Frederick G. Renner, on the other hand, combined information gathering with a passion for collecting. Both men realized that the more knowledge of the artist and his work they possessed the greater their advantages in the marketplace and the easier to avoid the growing number of fakes and forgeries that plagued the unknowing. A government range management specialist born in Great Falls, Montana, Fred Renner, as a boy had known Charlie Russell and had become a lifelong admirer of the artist and a student of his work. In the 1930s Renner began to document each Russell artwork he encountered and by the time of his death in 1987 his files contained information on more than 4,000 paintings, drawings, bronze sculptures, and original models. With Nancy Russell’s help he also managed to amass photographs of many of these works. An inveterate collector, Renner, also bought and sold several hundred works of his favorite artist and mortgaged his home more than once to finance his purchases.[47]

In 1936, James B. Rankin, a college teacher from Colorado living in New York, set out to write a biography of Charles M. Russell and for the next several years scoured the country for details on his subject’s life. He interviewed or corresponded with many of the artist’s friends and, after moving to Pasadena, California, in 1939, became acquainted with Nancy Russell. Through persistence and sincerity Rankin eventually won the confidence of the artist’s widow and her support in his endeavor. Although he amassed a voluminous Russell archive during the course of his research, the professor’s interest in his subject waned after Nancy Russell’s passing and, sadly, he never completed his project. After Rankin’s death in 1962, his widow deposited his priceless papers in the Montana Historical Society where they would be accessible to other researchers.[48]

Before his passing, James Rankin had generously allowed University of Texas English professor, J. Frank Dobie, to copy his notes on Russell. A folklorist and historian of the western range cattle industry, Dobie had become intrigued with the cowboy artist after reading and reviewing Trails Plowed Under in 1927. Intermittently between the 1940s and the early 1960s, the scholar had conducted his own round of correspondence and interviews with Russell’s friends, using the information gleaned from these contacts in historical sketches published in magazines and the author’s syndicated newspaper column. Along the way Dobie became friends with Thomas Gilcrease and contributed an occasional article on Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington to American Scene, a periodical published by the museum that Gilcrease had opened in Tulsa in 1949 to display his many treasures.[49]

In the decade that followed two other museums with significant Russell holdings opened their doors. A bequest containing the collection of longtime Russell intimate Josephine Trigg, for example, led to the building of the C.M. Russell Gallery, later renamed the C.M. Russell Museum, adjacent to the Russell home and studio in Great Falls in 1953. The Whitney Gallery of Western Art, founded six years later in Cody, Wyoming, also regularly exhibited Russell paintings and sculpture, much of it from the collection of pharmaceutical magnate, William E. Weiss, Jr. The bulk of Weiss’s Russell holdings had once belonged to Andrew J. Davis, a wealthy Butte, Montana businessman, who had obtained many of the works directly from the artist. Weiss and his heirs eventually donated much of this impressive gathering to the gallery, which became part of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.[50]

In the early 1960s, the Whitney Gallery received several dozen of Russell’s wax and plaster models as a gift from California oil men Charles S. Jones and Armand Hammer. Jones had purchased an interest in the models from Homer Britzman in 1941 and Hammer, a partner in the Hammer Galleries of New York, had acquired part ownership when he and his brothers purchased Britzman’s collection from his widow in 1957. For several years the Hammer Galleries had toured parts of the collection to museums in the U.S. and Canada and gradually sold off most of its contents.[51]

Works from the Hammer collection were also part of the 200 paintings and sculptures assembled for a major exhibition on Charles M. Russell held at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Collection of Fine Arts in the fall of 1958. On the eve of the Washington event, New York publisher Doubleday & Company released The Charles M. Russell Book: The Life and Work of the Cowboy Artist, one of several important volumes on western art and artists to appear during the 1950s. Written for a general audience by Harold McCracken, who would soon become the director of the Whitney Gallery at Cody, the coffee table-style publication reflected the public’s renewed fascination with the American West in the years following World War II. McCracken’s work and that of most other early writers on the art of the region emphasized biographical detail and measured the quality of a “western” artist’s work by the historical accuracy of the subject matter rather than the maker’s creativity and talent.[52] After its founding in 1961, the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art in Fort Worth took the lead in scholarship in the field, including fresh inquiries into the life and work of Charles M. Russell. At first the museum relied upon Fred Renner, the leading authority on the cowboy artist, for information and publications. In the previous quarter century Renner had not only amassed substantial research on his favorite artist but also had authenticated countless paintings and sculptures for galleries and private collectors and had authored the first study of Russell fakes and forgeries.[53]

In 1962 the Amon Carter Museum published Renner’s Paper Talk: Illustrated Letters of Charles M. Russell, followed four years later by his Charles M. Russell: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture in the Amon Carter Museum, a catalog of more than 300 works in various media. By this time, Renner also had begun an extended collaboration with Karl Yost that in 1971 resulted in A Bibliography of the Published Works of Charles M. Russell. Containing more than 3,500 entries, the landmark volume has proved an indispensable reference to researchers and collectors alike.[54]

In the 1980s, a new generation of U.S. and Canadian scholars began to ask new questions and probe more deeply into Russell’s life and art. Mining the C.M. Russell archives in the Britzman Collection at the Taylor Museum for Southwestern Studies of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and other underused primary sources, their studies corrected old legends, presented fresh data, and advanced new interpretations of the artist and his circle. Of these researchers, Brian W. Dippie emerged as the preeminent authority on the life, times, and work of the cowboy artist. Since 1979, the University of Victoria professor has authored or edited a half-dozen books or catalogs on Montana’s cowboy artist, and more than three times as many articles. Two of the indefatigable historian’s most significant works, “Paper Talk”: Charlie Russell’s American West (1979) and Charles M. Russell, Word Painter: Letters 1887-1926 (1993), dealt with the artist’s intriguing illustrated correspondence. Another important volume, Looking at Russell (1987) examined his artistic influences, and still another surveyed the collection of the Sid Richardson Museum in Fort Worth, opened to the public in 1982.[55]

In 1989, Peter Hassrick, the longtime director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and an art historian best known for his work on Frederic Remington, penned Charles M. Russell, a volume in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Library of American Art Series and a perceptive appraisal of Russell’s artistry. More recently, in the exhibition catalog Remington, Russell and The Language of Western Art (2000), Hassrick explored the historic and creative links between two artists synonymous with the Old West.[56]

Several other important studies have focused on long-neglected aspects of Russell’s oeuvre. Amon Carter Museum curator Rick Stewart’s monumental Charles M. Russell, Sculptor (1994), for example, provided the first comprehensive study of Russell’s works in bronze while Raphael J. Cristy, an award-winning actor and scholar, explored the artist’s considerable literary talents in Charles M. Russell: The Storyteller's Art (2004).[57]

After many false starts by several writers, a reliable, full-length biography of the artist finally appeared in 1994. Although many readers applauded author John Taliaferro’s evenhanded treatment of his subject in Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist, a few disapproved of the author’s baring of intimate details of Charles and Nancy Russell’s sexual history.[58]

Three years earlier, several paintings by the Montana artist had been included in a controversial art exhibition held at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. The curators of The West as America offered a sweeping reevaluation of western American painting and sculpture and boldly challenged the traditional and largely laudatory view that the artists who portrayed the region, including C.M. Russell, were “passive reporters of the ‘real thing’; the art itself long considered heroic, authentic, documentary representations of our collective tradition.”[59] Exhibit organizers argued instead that artists like Russell consciously infused their works with metaphorical and ideological messages tied to stereotypes of race, class, and gender.[60]

Although at least a few informed observers appreciated the fact that western American art was finally being taken seriously after decades of disregard, the revisionist approach and unremitting negativity of the message provoked a firestorm of condemnation. Critics howled in disbelief, for example, at art historian Alex Nemerov’s interpretation of C.M. Russell’s painting Carson’s Men as a metaphor for the Crucifixion of Christ. Undaunted by the outcry, Nemerov continued his controversial “decoding” of Russell paintings in “Projecting the Future: Film and Race in the Art of Charles Russell,” published in American Art magazine in 1994.[61]

The increased scholarly attention accorded Charles M. Russell’s art over the past several decades is attributable, at least in part, to the opening of a host of new museums housing notable collections of his work. Repositories such as the R.W. Norton Art Gallery in Shreveport, Louisiana (1966), the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas (1976), the Rockwell Museum in Corning, New York (1982), the Sid Richardson Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (1982), the Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, California (1988), the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana (1989), and a few others, sprang out of the private accumulations of well-heeled collectors in the tradition of Frank Phillips, Thomas Gilcrease, and Amon Carter. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, on the other hand, reflected a broader collection base as did the many general art museums that acquired Russell’s work over the years.[62]

The 1990s saw the death of Charles and Nancy Russell’s adopted son Jack and the final dispersal of Nancy Russell’s estate. To satisfy the terms of Russell’s will and California law, the estate trustee invited a number of museums and universities to submit proposals for “establishing a perpetual memorial in the name of Charles Russell so as to increase the artistic appreciation of the people of the United States in the art of Charles Russell.”[63] The University of Oklahoma submitted the winning plan and in 1998 founded the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West and an accompanying academic program focused on western American and Native American art history. As part of its educational mission, the Russell Center also maintains a research library and sponsors visiting lecturers, academic symposia, and other educational programs in its field. In 2001, the Center undertook the completion of research on the Charles M. Russell catalogue raisonné [paywall], work begun by the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls nearly a decade earlier. The completion of this massive reference, coupled with a retrospective exhibition and the ongoing academic training of students in the art history of the American West, will no doubt extend and enhance Charles M. Russell’s artistic legacy through the 21st century and beyond. 

The print catalogue may be purchased from the Gilcrease Musuem shop: 918-596-2725 or gilcrease-store@utulsa.edu.
 


ENDNOTES

[1] The figures presented here have been compiled from the Charles M. Russell Catalog Raisonné files, Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West, School of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma (hereafter Russell Catalog Raisonné files).

[2] Ibid.; Coeur d’Alene Art Auction, Reno, Nev., The Coeur D’Alene Art Auction, Saturday July 30, 2005 (Reno: the auction, 2005), no. 116; http://www.cdaartauction.com/past/.

[3] See Charles M. Russell, Trails Plowed Under (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1927); Charles M. Russell, Good Medicine: The Illustrated Letters of Charles M. Russell (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1929) and Dan E. Conway, “A Child of the Frontier, Memoirs of Charles M. Russell,” dated 1927, typescript, Fred and Ginger Renner Collection, Paradise Valley, California.

[4] Russell Catalogue Raisonne files; Larry Len Peterson, Charles M. Russell, Legacy (Helena and Great Falls, Mont.: Twodot Books and C.M. Russell Museum, 1999), p. 360; Art League of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, Calif., The First Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Charles Marion Russell “Painter of the West” (Santa Barbara, Calif.: the art league, 1927); Biltmore Salon, Memorial Exhibition, Charles Marion Russell “Painter of the West” 1865-1926 (Los Angeles, Calif.: the salon, 1927); Grand Central Art Galleries, New York, N.Y.: Memorial Exhibition, Charles Marion Russell “Painter of the West” 1865-1926 (New York: the galleries, 1927); Grand Central Art Galleries, New York, N.Y.: Charles Marion Russell “Painter of the West” 1865-1926 (New York: the galleries, 1928); Robert C. Vose Galleries, Boston, Mass. Charles Marion Russell “Painter of the West” 1865 [sic]-1926. November Thirteenth to Twenty-Fourth. (Boston: the galleries, 1928).

[5] Nancy Russell favored a model submitted by California artist, Henry Lion. See Rick Stewart, Charles M. Russell, Sculptor (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1994), p. 105-106.

[6] Ibid., p. 103.

[7] Peterson, Charles M. Russell, Legacy, p. 362.

[8] Richard H. Saunders, Collecting the West: The C.R. Smith Collection of Western American Art (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1988), p. 45. Despite the hard times, Russell sculpture seems to have enjoyed steady sales until at least, 1931. Stewart, Charles M. Russell, Sculptor, p. 110.

[9] Saunders, Collecting the West, pp. 45-46. For accounts of Will Rogers’ role in fostering the collecting of Charles M. Russell’s art see Amon Carter letter to Louis Leighton, March 20,1948, Amon Carter Archives, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; Clyde Newhouse interview by Paul Cummings, New York, N.Y., November 8, 1972, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/newhou72.htm; C.R. Smith letter to George R. Miller, April 5, 1941, copy, C. R. Smith file, Charles M. Russell Research files, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; B. Byron Price, “Thomas Gilcrease’s Treasure House” in Anne Morand, et. al. Treasures of the Gilcrease (Tulsa, Okla.: Gilcrease Museum, 2003), p. 15.

[10] For an overview of Frank Phillips’s collection and collecting activities see Joe Williams, Woolaroc (Bartlesville, Okla: Frank Phillips Foundation, 2003), 100-189.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Frank Phillips letter to Nancy C. Russell, October 2, 1939, copy in Frank Phillips Correspondence files, Woolaroc Museum, Bartlesville, Oklahoma (hereafter Phillips Correspondence).

[13] Stewart, Charles M. Russell, Sculptor, pp. 112-113.

[14] John W. Donner letter to David C. Hamsell, May 15, 1942, Phillips Correspondence; Frank Phillips letter to Betty Rogers, January 31, 1940, copy Phillips Correspondence.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Nancy C. Russell letter to Frank Phillips, April 22, 1940, Phillips Correspondence.

[17] In September 1941, Phillips recalled that he had first offered $75,000 for the collection but had raised the figure to $100,000 not long before Nancy Russell’s death. “Before leaving California the winter of 1940,” he noted. “I withdrew all offers and suggested that if and when the collection was offered, I’d like to have a chance at it.” Frank Phillips letter to William S. Hart and Mrs. Betty Rogers, September 30, 1941, copy, Phillips Correspondence. See also Harry Carr, Pasadena letter to Frank Phillips, February 5, 1940, Phillips Correspondence; Frank Phillips letter to Harry Carr, February 6, 1940, copy, Phillips Correspondence; F.P. [Frank Phillips] to S.K. “Boots” Adams, Bartlesville, March 13, 1940, Phillips Correspondence.

[18] Frank Phillips to Nancy C. Russell, February 6, 1940, copy, Phillips Correspondence.

[19] Nancy C. Russell letter to Richard Gordon Matzene, March 21, 1940, Phillips Correspondence.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Nancy C. Russell letter to Frank Phillips, April 9, 1940, Phillips Correspondence.

[22] Russell Catalog Raisonné files; The alleged Russell painting Phillips’ purchased at the Parke Bernet auction in New York on April 18, 1940, was actually painted by N. H. Trotter. Frank Phillips to H. Byrd, April 10, 1940, copy, Phillips Correspondence; Frank Phillips letter to Nancy C. Russell, April 25, 1940, copy, Phillips Correspondence; Frank Phillips letter to Nancy C. Russell, April 25, 1940, copy, Phillips Correspondence.

[23] Earl Adams, “Earl Adams: On the Russell Estate” Persimmon Hill 11 (Summer/Fall 1982): 94-95 (hereafter Adams, “Russell Estate”)

[24] Nancy C. Russell, Codicil to Last Will and Testament of Nancy C. Russell, June 18, 1934, copy, Phillips Correspondence.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Stewart, Charles M. Russell, Sculptor, p. 115; Adams, “Russell Estate,” 95-96.

[27] Robert L. Stivers letter to D.C. Hemsell, November 7, 1940, Phillips Correspondence.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Adams, “Russell Estate,” 96-97; William S. Hart letter to Frank Phillips, October 8, 1941, Phillips Correspondence.

[31] John W. Donner letter to David C. Hamsell, May 15, 1942, copy, Phillips Correspondence; Earl Adams letter to C.R. Smith, April 29, 1941, copy, C. R. Smith file, Charles M. Russell Research files, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

[32] Had he been aware of the sale, under California law, Phillips could have secured the collection at the probate hearing with a bid of $44,000, 10% in excess of Smith’s. Adams, “Russell Estate,” 97. See also Williams, Woolaroc, 123.

[33] Frank Phillips letter to William S. Hart and Mrs. Betty Rogers, September 30, 1941, copy, Phillips Correspondence; Robert C. Stivers letter to Frank Phillips, October 25, 1941, copy, Phillips Correspondence.

[34] Hart to Phillips, October 8, 1941.

[35] John Taliaferro, “The Curse of the Buffalo Skull: Seventy Years on the Trail of a Charles M. Russell Biography,” Montana The Magazine of Western History 46 (Summer 1996): 9; H.E. Britzman letter to M.L. Karch, July 4, 1942, Phillips Correspondence.

[36] Stewart, Charles M. Russell, Sculptor, p. 118-119.

[37] In 1935 Britzman bought a group of illustrations used in Carrie Adell Strahorn’s, 1911 memoir Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage. See H.E. Britzman letter to James B. Rankin, March 22, 1937, Helen E. and Homer E. Britzman Collection, Taylor Museum for Southwestern Studies of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado. (hereafter Britzman); Britzman to Karch, July 4, 1942; Frank Phillips letter to H.E. Britzman, July 29, 1942, copy in Phillips Correspondence.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Trail’s End Publishing Co produced among other works: Charles M. Russell, Pen and Ink Drawings (Pasadena, Calif.: Trail’s End Publishing Co., 1946); C.M. Russell, Forty Pen and Ink Drawings (Pasadena, Calif.: Trail’s End Publishing Company, 1947); Con Price, Memories of Old Montana (Pasadena, Calif.: Trail’s End Publishing Co., 1945) and Con Price, Trails I Rode (Pasadena, Calif.: Trail’s End Publishing Co., Inc., 1947); Charles M. Russell, Rawhide Rawlins Rides Again: Or, Behind the Swinging Doors (Pasadena, Calif.: Trail’s End Publishing Co., Inc., 1948).

[40] Ramon Adams and Homer Britzman. Charles M. Russell the Cowboy Artist: A Biography (Pasadena, Calif.: Trail’s End Publishing Co., 1948); Nancy C. Russell, “‘Back-Tracking in Memory’: The Life of Charles M. Russell, Artist,” typescript and draft, Britzman.

[41] See Homer Britzman, “Genius in Chaps,” Arizona Highways, 25 (November 1949):16-29; Homer Britzman and Lonnie Hull, “The West in Bronze,” Westerners Brand Book (Los Angeles, Calif.: Los Angeles Westerners, 1949): 89-136.Books of other authors published by Trail’s End Publishing Company include William L. “Bill” Carlisle, Lone Bandit, an Autobiography. (Pasadena, Calif.: Trail’s End Pub. Co., 1946); Frank M. King, Pioneer Western Empire Builders, a True Story of the Men and Women of Pioneer Days (Pasadena, Calif.: Trail’s End Pub. Co., 1946); Frank M. King, Wranglin’ the Past, the Reminiscences of Frank M. King, revised ed. (Pasadena, Calif.: Trail’s End Pub. Co., 1946); Earle Robert Forrest, and Edwin Bliss Hill, Lone War Trail of Apache Kid (Pasadena, Calif.: Trail’s End Pub. Co., 1947); Frank M. King, Mavericks: The Salty Comments of an Old-Time Cowpuncher (Pasadena, California: Trail’s End Pub. Co., 1947); and Major Israel McCreight, and Flying Hawk. Firewater and Forked Tongues: A Sioux Chief Interprets U. S. History (Pasadena, Calif.: Trail’s End Pub. Co., 1947). The controversy over Britzman’s questionable casting activities is detailed in Stewart, Charles M. Russell, Sculptor, pp. 117-125.

[42] Gilcrease survived a last minute bid by the R.W. Norton Foundation of Shreveport $400,000 greater than his own, J. Brooks Joyner, “The Remarkable Collection of Dr. Philip G. Cole and How It Came to Gilcrease,” Gilcrease Journal 9 (Summer 2001): 34-38.

[43] Brian W. Dippie, Remington and Russell: The Sid Richardson Collection, revised edition (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1982), pp. 1, 11.

[44] Mrs. George Niedringhaus letter to [Ehrich-Newhouse Galleries ?], April 18, 1935, Collection file 1961.154, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; J.W. Young letter to Amon G. Carter, February 15, 1947, Collection file 1961.257, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; J.W. Young, Chicago, Illinois, Receipt dated May 29, 1947, Collection file, 1961.263, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

[45] Kathleen Bennewitz letter to Clyde Newhouse, May 2, 1985, copy in Collection File 1961.254, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; Elizabeth Dear, “The Mint and More,” Russell’s West 8 (No. 1): 8-12.

[46] Lambert, Kirby, “Montana's Last Best Chance” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 54 (Summer 2004): 3-9.

[47] For biographical sketches of Fred Renner see Jeff C. Dykes, “American Bibliophiles V: Frederick G. Renner,”American Book Collector, 12:3 (special number, November 1961): 5-8; Barbara H. Perlman, “Fred Renner Can ‘Smell a Russell,’” Art News 80 (December 1981): 98-102. The figures on Renner’s documenting and collecting activities have been compiled from Charles M. Russell Art Card File, Fred and Ginger Collection, Paradise Valley, Arizona.

[48] The bulk of Rankin’s work was transcribed and bound into a huge typescript: “The James Brownlee Rankin Collection of Letters and Other Papers on Charles M. Russell,” undated typescript, Fred and Ginger Renner Collection, Paradise Valley, Arizona. Rankin’s contributions to the Russell saga may be found in Taliaferro, “Curse of the Buffalo Skull,” 6-9.

[49] Ibid., p. 8-9; Peter H. Hassrick, “The Western Art Museum in 20th-Century America,” Gilcrease Journal 7 (Spring/Summer 1999): 38-60; J. Frank Dobie, “The Art of Charles Russell,” American Scene 3 (Summer 1960): 3-26; J. Frank Dobie, “Titans of Western Art,” American Scene 5 (Fall 1964): 4-11.

[50] Peter H. Hassrick, “Western Art Museums: A Question of Style or Content,” Montana The Magazine of Western History 42 (Summer 1992): 31-32. For a summary of the collecting activities of William Erhardt Weiss, Jr., see Peter H. Hassrick, Weiss Family Western Art Collection (Wheeling, West Va.: Oglebay Institute Mansion Museum, 1983).

[51] Russell Catalog Raisonné files; Victor J. Hammer, “C. M, Russell as Seen Through the Eyes of an Eminent Art Dealer and Critic,” Montana The Magazine of Western History 8 (Autumn 1958): 40-42; Harold McCracken, The Works of C.M. Russell: Private Collection of the Hammer Bros, from the Collection of Homer E. Britzman in Trail's End, Pasadena, Last residence of Nancy Russell: Tower Gallery, Los Angeles City Hall, Aug. 29-Sept. 13, 1957 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Municipal Art Department, 1957); Hammer Galleries, New York, NY. The Works of Charles M. Russell and Other Western Artists (New York: Hammer Art Galleries, 1962).

[52] Russell Catalog Raisonné files; See Harold McCracken, The Charles M. Russell Book: The Life and Work of the Cowboy Artist (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1957); Brian W. Dippie, “Western Art Don’t Get No Respect: A Fifty Year Perspective,” Montana The Magazine of Western History 51 (Winter 2001): 68-71.

[53] Dykes, “American Bibliophiles,” 5-8; Perlman, “Fred Renner,” 98-102; Frederick G. Renner, “Forgeries of the Works of Charles M. Russell,” Westerner’s Brand Book (Chicago), 12 (February 1956): 89-91, 94-96; Frederick G. Renner, “Bad Pennies, a Study of Forgeries of Charles M. Russell Art,” Montana The Magazine of Western History 6 (April 1956): 1-15.

[54] Karl Yost and Frederick G. Renner. A Bibliography of the Published Works of Charles M. Russell (Lincoln,: University of Nebraska Press, 1971).

[55] See Brian W. Dippie, ed. “Paper Talk”: Charlie Russell’s American West. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1979); Brian W. Dippie, ed. Charles M. Russell, Word Painter: Letters 1887-1926 (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1993) and Dippie, Remington and Russell.

[56] Peter H. Hassrick, Charles M. Russell (New York: Abrams in association with the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution), 1989.

[57] See Stewart, Charles M. Russell, Sculptor and Raphael Cristy, Charles M. Russell: The Storyteller’s Art (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004). Another important corrective to the Russell saga may be found in Hugh A. Dempsey, “Tracking C.M. Russell in Canada, 1888-1889.” Montana The Magazine of Western History, 39 (Summer 1989), 2-15.

[58] John Taliaferro, Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996). Nancy Russell’s life is detailed in Joan Stauffer, Behind Every Man: The Story of Nancy Cooper Russell (Tulsa: Daljo Pub., 1990).

[59] Steven C. Dubin, Displays of Power (New York: New York University Press, 1999), pp. 159.

[60] Ibid; William Truettner and Alexander Nemerov, “What You See Is Not Necessarily What You Get.”: New Meaning In Images of the Old West,” Montana The Magazine of Western History 42 (Summer 1992): 70-76; William Truettner and Alexander Nemerov, “More Bark Than Bite: Thoughts on the Traditional—And Not Very Historical—Approach to Western Art,” Journal of Arizona History 33 (Autumn 1992): 311-24.

[61] Alex Nemrov, “Doing the ‘Old America’” in William Truettner, ed. The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), pp. 285-343; Alexander Nemerov, “Projecting the Future: Film and Race in the Art of Charles Russell.” American Art 8 (Winter 1994): 70-89.

[62] Hassrick, “Western Art Museums: A Question of Style or Content,” 24-39; Dean Krakel, Adventures in Western Art (Kansas City: Lowell Press, 1977). pp. 174-175, 319; “The Route to Russell: Where to See,” Russell’s West Quarterly 3 (Winter 2006): 6-7, surveys major Russell collections in museums across the country.

[63] Adams, “Russell Estate,” 95.