Today's Hours
Museum: Closed
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Today's Hours
Museum: Closed
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Russell, Charles M.
(1864-1926)
Collection: American Collection
View Artwork
Charlie Russell once wrote to a friend who sought inspiration as a writer,
"[C]inch your saddle on romance. [H]es a high headed hoss with plenty of
blemishes but keep him moovin an thers fiew that can call the leg he limps
on and most folks like prancers." They were words Charlie himself lived
by, and while, unlike many of the "cowboy artists", his experience of the
West was authentic, involving years of hard work as a genuine cow-puncher,
he understood that the audience for his art wanted a little romantic gravy
to accompany the strong meat of Western life. To another friend, he wrote,
"Myth is the Mother of Romance and I am her oldest son."

Like so many of the famous chroniclers of the "Wild West", he was not
native to its rugged environment. Instead he was born on March 19, 1864 to
a wealthy and socially prominent family in St. Louis, Missouri, the second
of five sons (he had one elder sister). His family numbered among the
earliest American settlers in the St. Louis area and had distinguished
antecedents even earlier; his mother, Mary Mead Russell, was descended
from English forebears who arrived with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The
Russells were among the region's most successful entrepreneurs; two of his
great-uncles had been instrumental in establishing the Santa Fe Trail. His
father's mother came from an especially noteworthy pioneer family, the
Bents. When the United States annexed New Mexico, her brother Charles was
named the first governor and shortly afterwards murdered and scalped by a
band of Indians and Mexicans. Another brother, William, married a Cheyenne
woman. Two of his sons chose to live as Cheyenne warriors and fought
against the U.S. Cavalry at the infamous Sand Creek massacre. A third son
worked as a scout for Colonel John Chivington's cavalry and found himself
opposing his own brothers in the same battle.

Surrounded by real-life stories like these, it's little wonder Charlie
understood the power of romance, or that he longed for his own adventures.
Sent to the very best schools, he performed terribly (the result,
according to biographer John Taliaferro, of the learning disability
dysgraphia). He assuaged his failure with repeated readings of Cooper's
Leatherstocking Tales and Ned Buntline's dime novels and developed the
ambition to be a cowboy, which his family reacted to as families normally
do to such declarations.

Fortunately, they were far more supportive of his interest in art. When
only 12, he sculpted a knight in armor which his father had cast and
entered in the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair where it won a
blue ribbon. He was sent to a prestigious art school, but he hated its
rigidity and formalized exercises and quit after only a couple of lessons.
In a last-ditch attempt at formal education, his desperate parents sent
him to a boarding school in New Jersey. Less than three months later, just
short of his sixteenth birthday, Charlie hopped a train for Montana.

Disappointingly, like fellow Western icon Frederic Remington, his first
job involved sheep rather than cattle, and also like Remington, he
despised them. But while Remington retreated to the East, Charlie found a
new job as a night wrangler with a cattle herd and spent the next 13 years
as a working cowboy. Charlie even tried living among Native Americans for
a time, spending several months with the Blood Indians (one of the
Blackfeet tribes) in Canada. The old hands called him "the Buckskin Kid"
(for the shirt he wore) or "Kid Russell" and his amusing stories,
practical jokes, and constant sketching made him a popular bunkmate.
Old-timer Al Andrews reported, "At camp and elsewhere, his habit of
drawing on the wagon covers, on poker chips and playing cards never failed
[to] arouse wonder and admiration from the rest of the gang." He painted
his first oil painting in 1885, appropriately enough a piece commissioned
to go behind the bar in one of the saloons he frequented. He was producing
plenty of work, but his art earnings merely augmented his salary as a
cowboy since his top price was only $25.00 and he frequently sold work for
less or gave it away.

Then in 1886, the year of the "Big Die-Off" when 60% of the herds died in
the harsh winter, he dashed off a postcard sketch of a dying steer stalked
by wolves that he facetiously titled "Waiting for a Chinook" to send to
the herd's owner as a report on the fate of his cattle. After he dried his
tears, the owner showed the postcard to everyone he met. Soon everyone in
Montana knew of Charlie Russell, the cowboy artist. In 1887 the Helena
Weekly Herald
proclaimed: "Within twelve months past, the fame of an
amateur devotee of the brush and pencil has arisen in Montana, and
nurtured by true genius within the confines of a cattle ranch, has burst
its bounds and spread abroad over the territory."

Commissions flowed in and his future as an illustrator began in earnest.
By 1887 he was signing his pieces with the buffalo bull head that became
his trademark. But he was still making minimal sums for his work, largely
because he was both too shy and too inexperienced with and embarrassed by
business to ask for more money. Whether he'd be primarily an artist or a
cowboy was still at issue. His path was finally chosen when in 1893 he
took a job as a cattle prodder on a train trip to Chicago. It was his last
job tending a herd; he was on his way to the Columbian Exposition where
three of his paintings were on exhibition. For the next three years his
fame grew, but he continued to live hand to mouth. Then in 1895 he dropped
in for dinner with friends. Serving the meal was a 17-year-old orphan they
had taken in as a combined servant and nursemaid. Something sparked
between Nancy Mann and the 30-year-old Charlie immediately. His friends
knew Charlie was "necked" when they learned he had put his horse Monte
into her keeping. Charlie was devoted to Monte and told so many stories
about his acquisition and adventures that the horse was as famous as his
master (when Monte died in 1903, the Great Falls, Montana newspaper ran an
obituary of him). Charlie married Nancy in September of 1896.

Nancy had even less education than Charlie, but she was a lot more driven.
It was Nancy who raised the prices on Charlie's work and stopped him from
giving so much away. This didn't always make her popular with his friends,
but it gave Charlie both stability and security. Theirs was a true love
match. Twenty-two years later when medical causes forced their separation
for a time, Charlie wrote a spate of love letters worthy of a fresh
courtship to his middle-aged wife, once bashfully warning, "don't show my
letters to aney body they might think I am spooney but I feel that way . .
. maybe Iv falling [in] love the second time I guess its all right if it's
the same woman and it is." Whatever others might say, Charlie knew how
much he owed Nancy and his loyalty never flagged. Near the end of his life
he told one reporter:

I don't lay any claim to being a genius, but I will say my wife has
been an inspiration to me in my work. Without her I would probably never
have attempted to soar or reach any height, further than to make a few
pictures for my friends and old acquaintances in the west. I still love
and long for the old west, and everything that goes with it. But I would
sacrifice it all for Mrs. Russell . . .


With Nancy minding the business and Charlie painting and sculpting
full-time, his career took off. The Russells soon had a nice house in
Great Falls, Montana, a vacation cabin called Bull Head Lodge on Lake
McDonald in the future Glacier National Park, and eventually a summer home
called Trail's End in Pasadena, California. With Charlie's success came
regular trips to New York, St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other
major cities, as well as a trip to Europe. Charlie and Nancy rubbed elbows
with movie stars like their close friends William S. Hart, Harry Carey,
and Will Rogers, and royalty like Albert, Prince of Wales, who had a
Russell in his private collection. In 1921 Charlie's first book,
Rawhide Rawlins Stories, a collection of the fiction he'd been
writing for magazines since 1907, was published; other collections would
follow including Good Medicine, a collection of Charlie's
illustrated letters, and his last book, Trails Plowed Under, with a
posthumous foreword by Will Rogers. Charlie's paintings and sculptures had
been exhibited at the St. Louis World's Fair, at galleries in New York,
Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, and at the International Exposition in
Rome. He had painted the dome of the Montana House of Representatives and
been given an honorary degree by the University of Montana. He was not
only a world-famous artist, but also a beloved celebrity.

But in 1925 when the still-energetic ex-cowpuncher went to the Mayo Clinic
to have a goiter removed, pre-operative testing revealed a damaged and
failing heart. On Sunday, October 24, 1926, at the age of 62, Charles
Marion Russell died. For his funeral, in respect for his aversion to
"skunk wagons", a horse-drawn hearse was located and brought to Great
Falls. Behind it a friend led a horse bearing Charlie's saddle and bridle,
his Colt six-guns and holster strapped behind the cantle. The funeral
cortege wound its way through streets lined with mourners; all schools,
city offices, and courtrooms had been closed for the day.

In the end what may best be said about Charlie is what he told a friend in
a poem about the place he loved: "The West is dead. You may lose a
sweetheart, but you will never forget her."

Everl Adair, Director of Research and Rare Collections