Gilcrease Museum is temporarily closed for construction.

Get the Full Story
Date posted:  January 27, 2016

“Nature taught her child to read, to write and spell, and with her books before him he reads his lesson well.” CMR

In the carefree days before his marriage, Charlie Russell painted for amusement. Creating pictures was his favorite diversion. His friends of those days will testify to his liberality with the products of his brush. If a friend admired one of his paintings, it was presented to him. He saw no reason why that individual should not own it. Giving was part of his happiness. Many of his early pictures were sold to feed his hungry friends or to buy them a few drinks. He failed to realize the value of his work; and, although he was continually urged to leave the range and devote full time to art, the free, easy life in the open was the magnet he could not resist. 

Charlie lived the life and the scenes he depicted. In the wilderness of Montana and Canada he was the companion to the freighter, the trapper, the hunter and the Indian. On the plains he herded cattle, worked on the roundups and participated in the rough-and-ready and wild existence of the region. He wore the clothes with which he clothed his characters. He felt the emotions he put upon his canvases. His men are rough, homely frontiersmen, not the fiery romancers depicted by some idealist. His characters are close to earth, men he lived and worked with, not caricatures or exaggerated types. 

Not being a portrait or landscape artist, Charlie could not pose his subjects, nor set up his easel at the scene of action. He had to draw upon an indelible memory for the subjects he painted, and except for the backgrounds, which he frequently sketched at the scene; he relied upon hard work to secure the effects he desired. 

Russell hated comparisons. His generous heart rebelled against comparing his work as better than that of other artists. Yet many critics have compared his Indians, for example, to those of Remington. Remington saw the West from a soldier’s point of view. He saw the Indian on the warpath – as enemies of the white man, as barbarians to be subjugated. But Russell saw an entirely different West. He saw it from the point of view of the pioneer who came West to make it his home, to enjoy its thrills and suffer its hardships. 

He did not look upon the Indian as the white man’s enemy. Early in his western experience he came to know the better side of the red man, and he found many traits to admire. As his contacts with Indians became more frequent and he had opportunity to study their character, he came to the conclusion that in some respects the Indian had a sounder philosophy than did the white man. Instead of seeing murder in their hearts, he saw the misunderstanding between two races of people.  Instead of merely catching the action of the moment, he caught and preserved the historical background which produced the action. 

When he put upon canvas a mass of detail, action and history, it was always because this was the thing he liked to do best. His taste in art was avowedly for the picture that told a story. He painted like a master novelist writes. His pictures had action and suspense. There was  hint of distance and the highness of the country he knew so well, a thrill of danger, a splash of blood, the smoke of a .45 but always and beyond his picture, the immutable, luminous splendor of the blue-purple mountains, with a sense of Infinity and the Absolute above them. 

His paintings have the exciting element of danger. He loved to paint a mixed-up, tangled-up situation whereby man or animal had an equal chance of victory. The incident was not enough. The hazard, the chance and the possible tragedy alone gauged his interest. He had the wit to see a dual situation attached to any great moment, and he had the ability to paint his animals and characters in a hazardous situation such as daily occurred in the unfenced West – situations no other artist had ever attempted. He never generalized, but gave accurate and graphic events, and his pictures tell an unforgettable story. 

Most of his paintings were of men and animals in violent action, in poses not possible to be held by a model for an instant, even if the cowpunchers had had a mind and a willingness to do so. He then turned to his first love – modeling in clay and wax. With these materials he could, with unbelievable speed, arrest each of his subjects in the pose he wished them to assume in the picture. 

He would arrange these figures as though they were actual participants in the real scene. Then, to make the effect complete, he would place them in the desired position in relation to the sunlight. Now he was ready to begin filling his picture on canvas.

One of his greatest problems was the portrayal of the human anatomy in action. When alone and in a quandary, he would often strip his torso and stand before a mirror observing his own muscles, noting the twist of a limb or a movement of his head, sketching the right muscular outlines as they appeared in certain vigorous postures. 

Since Charlie knew the West before civilization moved in, his knowledge was gleaned from having lived it, not from superficial observation. He loved the strife and conflict of that life. Witnessing, as he did, the vanishing of the buffalo and the Indian, the replacement of cows for plows, he realized that the life he lived was passing into history. So, with each eventful happening, he etched indelibly upon his mind the pictures he has since put into lasting form upon canvas and in bronze. 

The characters of his paintings bear out the creed of his accurate craftsmanship. Never will you find one waving a tomahawk, holding a Henry rifle or throwing a rope with the wrong hand. You can tell that his horses have been “broke” by the saddle marks. Whether the pattern of a wearer’s costume, or a medicine man’s headdress, Russell drew it as he knew it to be. The critics receiving most of Charlie’s respect were his fellow cowboys.

Apart from the beauty of Russell’s paintings, the grandeur of the purpling hills and snow-covered buttes, of misty cold effects against an autumn sky, of amethyst sunset and topaz dawn, his pictures have distinct historical significance. In the accuracy of detail, the creator was faithful to the time and the place of the old frontier, thus leaving a legacy to the future in his canvases. 

His paintings are chronicles in wonderful colors that are true to the glories of the landscape of this country. In none of them is the sun itself visible but the highlights are so well painted, the flashback of the sun as it strikes a face or an object so realistic that one turns involuntarily to see if the sun is not filtering through a window.

All his pictures are characteristic of him, full of motion, vivid color, the indescribably translucent atmosphere of those latitudes and, above all, authentic of the native and the landscape. 

The West he was perpetuating was that of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the West of cowboy pranks and Indian ceremonials, of buffalo and wolves, Rocky Mountain sheep and bears, and the cattle ranges – the West of “holdups” and miscellaneous shootings, of cattle- and horse-stealing, of “bad men” and quick gunplay. These things are found in his pictures and sculptured groups, presented with freshness and verve, with excellent composition, free, spirited drawings and modeling, and faithful adherence to accuracy in matters of costume and equipment. 

Charlie Russell became a master with no master but the inspiration of the West, the vivid experiences of his days on the range, the thrilling story of adventure and exploration and an indomitable genius to teach him. Yet, notwithstanding this lack of academic training and precedent, or perhaps because of it, he developed a sensitive technique of much natural refinement, springing from an inborn exaltation in the light, color and freedom from the influence of “school,” and untrammeled by the tricks of studio. 

He gave us the presentation of an individual cowboy and horse in such a way, and with such authority they seem to become the type of their race, but at the same time, and in the same picture, he gave us their world and their life, with its joys and hardships.

The sentimentality of the poet ill suits a man like Charlie Russell; still, his pictures often affect the beholder as some powerful poem, more epic than lyric, in which he glorifies Nature, the living and the lifeless. 

He painted because he could not help painting. It was as much a part of the necessity of living to him as breathing. It has been said that if he had lost both hands he would have found some means of putting brush to canvas, for he had to do it. And herein, lies the secret of the man behind the pictures.