A Brief Look into the Life of the Cowboy Artist: Charles Marion Russell
Born in 1864 near St. Louis, Charles Marion Russell became an internationally revered artist of the American West. He was a prolific painter and sculptor, creating an estimated 4,000 renditions of cowboys, Indians, and Western landscapes in paintings, drawings, and sculptures in wax, clay, and plaster, some of which were also cast in bronze.
The Dreamer Becomes a Cowboy
Following a childhood in which he read about the Old West and dreamed of becoming a cowboy, Russell arrived in Montana at age 16. He worked as a sheep tender, then became a night wrangler for a cattle roundup. There he met Jake Hoover, a local hunter, with whom he became lifelong friends and learned much about the ways of the American West.
The harsh winter of 1886 changed Russell’s life. Working as a cattle hand, he was inspired to paint. When the ranch owner asked the ranch foreman how their cattle dealt with the weather, the foreman sent one of Russell’s small watercolors depicting a gaunt steer standing beneath a gray winter sky while being watched by wolves. The ranch owner passed the painting around to friends, and it wound up on display in a Helena shop window.
Russell started receiving commissions, changing the focus of his career. (A painting he later made of the same scene, Waiting for a Chinook, became one of his most famous.)
The first of many works Russell created of the Plains Indians resulted from spending the summer of 1888 with the Blackfeet, Piegan, and Blood Indians in Alberta, Canada. Now a Western artist, he continued working as a cowboy and wrangler until marrying Nancy Cooper in 1896.
From Cowboy to Cowboy Artist
They settled in Great Falls, Montana, and Russell began painting and sculpting full-time. He filled his studio with Indian clothing, weapons, tools, cowboy gear, and other props from the Old West.
Emerging at a time when city dwellers were intensely interested in the Wild West, Russell held shows throughout the United States and overseas, booked by his wife, Nancy. He was soon both a local celebrity and an internationally acclaimed artist.
Called the “cowboy artist,” Charles Marion Russell was also a storyteller, author, historian, advocate of Native Americans, environmentalist, conservationist, outdoorsman, and philosopher. After he and his wife adopted a son, Jack, in 1916, he added “doting father” to that list.
Russell died on October 24, 1926, at his Montana home. More than 2,000 paintings of cowboys, personal objects, and artifacts are housed in the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls.
You can view other significant collections of Russell’s works at the Montana Historical Society in Helena, Montana; the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming; and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and Sid Richardson Museum, both in Fort Worth, Texas.
Learn about Frederic Remington’s “The Fall of the Cowboy” and other works of art at Fine Art Publishing in Tucson, AZ.