Charles Marion Russell was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on March 19, 1864. He was the son of a prominent family that had holdings in coal mines and brick manufacturing. Although Russell was raised with the intention of running the family business, he instead developed colorful ambitions toward becoming a cowboy. As a boy, he was a proficient rider and he adopted the ways and manners of his western heroes. His other great ambition was to paint. He was constantly sketching in his schoolbooks and his principal subjects were cowboys and Indians.
In 1880, Russell set out for Montana. He arrived in Helena and took a job as a sheep herder. After a short time, he befriended Jake Hoover, a trapper and hunter, and spent two years with Hoover in the Judith Basin. All the time he continued his painting, spending long hours sketching the wild animals he observed in his daily life. Two years after moving to Montana he hired out as a cowboy, to keep watch on horses, and later as a "night hawk" to watch the cattle at night. Russell was constantly sketching during his off hours and was slowly developing a local reputation as an artist. In 1888, Russell had his first national exposure when one of his sketches appeared in Harper's Weekly, his first paid illustration.
Russell's years as a cowboy were to be very important in his art. His firsthand experiences and his intimate knowledge of the cowboy's tools and ways were to produce the distinctive realism that is characteristic of his style. He portrayed actual events and people in his paintings. Many legends and stories of the West that he often used in his works were originally heard by Russell in evening discussions and camp talk during his years as a cowboy. Russell was also a fervent admirer of the American Indian and often portrayed them as heroic figures struggling to preserve their way of life. In the winter of 1888-89, Russell lived with the primitive Blood Indians in Canada.
By 1892, Russell was a full-time painter. His works were popular in Montana and he was occasionally publishing an illustration for a book or story in a magazine. He was, by nature, a friendly and convivial person. Having no concept of earning his living as a painter, Russell would usually give his sketches and paintings to friends and, at times, would paint a commission for the local saloon in exchange for his bar debts. Although he was becoming famous, he was realizing very little financial gain. On September 9, 1896, he married Nancy Cooper and moved to Great Falls. Nancy immediately became Russell's business manager. She slowly and carefully built up Russell's reputation and stopped his practice of giving away his art. Russell began to sell his paintings at good prices and together, he and Nancy began to enjoy the rewards of fame.
In 1898, Russell cast his first bronzes at the Roman Bronze Works foundry in New York. They were small items but sold well. In 1899, he published Pen Sketches, a collection of prints of cowboy life. These were quickly successful and reprinted in several editions.
By 1903, Russell had a national reputation. He built a log-cabin studio in Great Falls that he stocked with a large collection of artifacts and memorabilia of his cowboy days. In the winter of 1903, he and Nancy went to New York top promote his first eastern art exhibition. On the way, they stopped in St. Louis, where Russell had several paintings in the Louisiana Purchase International Exposition. The New York trip was a failure as they did not sell any paintings. The next year, Nancy persuaded Russell to try again and they returned to New York. They sold several paintings and were able to get Russell's small bronzes established at Tiffany. In addition, Russell became swamped with orders for illustrations.
In 1909, Russell exhibited at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, and in 1911, Russell had his first important one-man show in New York, at the Folsom Gallery. That same year, he was commissioned by the State of Montana to do a mural for the Montana House of Representatives, Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians. In 1914, he had a successful show at the Dore Galleries in London. By 1915, he was a complete success, getting large prices for his paintings and selling all that he could produce. Success, however, did not change Russell's character or charm. He was still the friendly cowboy and he could not understand why people paid so much money for his work.
In 1920, Russell's health began to weaken. He and Nancy would spend winters in California to avoid the rigors of the Montana climate. After several years of poor health, Charles M. Russell died of a heart attack on October 24, 1926, at the age of 62.
ARTWORK: Charles Marion Russell
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