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The Great Cowboy Artist, Charles M. Russell

Updated on July 5, 2020
American Buffalo
American Buffalo
The Bear
The Bear

Charles Russell, Early Life

Born to Silas and Mary Russell on 19 March 1864 in St. Louis, Missouri, he spent his early years searching for Indian artifacts, making things out of clay and learning to ride horses. He was on the Hazel Dell Farm were he learned to ride on the famous Civil War horse named Great Britain.

Russell already had the yearning to go west and become a cowboy. At age 16, he left school and headed to Montana. He was working on a sheep farm but butted heads with the owner and quit his job. He then set off with his mare along the Judith River. Setting up his camp, another rider, Jake Trapper camped along side of him. Trapper asked the kid where his grub was, sensing he was lonely. Russell answered "all I own in the world is my mare and my pinto. I have no money, no grub and I'm mighty blue".

Trapper's answer was simply "come with me." This was Russells's first friend in Montana and they remained friends for years.

Hazel Dell Farm
Hazel Dell Farm
Jake Trapper
Jake Trapper

Charlie's Exploring and Learning the West

In 1888, Russell had his first published illustration pictured in Harpers Weekly. Wanting to learn more about the Indians and their way of life before it was all gone, he then decided to live with the Blood Indians, who were part of the Blackfeet tribe. His time spent with them has been captured in his paintings. His deep love for the west has always been his keen interest. Upon his return from the Indians, he realized how fast settlers were moving in.

Wanting more solitude, Russell moved to Great Falls, Montana. Somehow, he knew he could be happy here. Sometime in 1890, Russell did a mural for a local bank in Lewiston, Montana, and sold it for $25. This was the most money he ever got for one of his paintings.

The Blood Indians
The Blood Indians

Charlie Russell Gets Married

In 1895, Charlie married Nancy Bates (1878-1940) and presented her with a ring he designed himself and had it cast from a 24-carat gold nugget. Russell's nickname for Nancy was "Mame," and she loved it. Nancy became the 'brains' of them. She had a keen sense of business, was attractive, and spoke in a melodious voice. She immediately saw the value of his work and set out to market it and arrange for exhibitions.

Nancy "Mame" Russell
Nancy "Mame" Russell
Nancy's Wedding Ring
Nancy's Wedding Ring

Russell's Career Takes Off

Certainly, Charlie had a unique gift as he painted what he saw and felt. He often, in his very humble way, said how fortunate he was to have such a gift and to do what he loved. As to his growing career, he said he owed it all to his wife for her business sense. In the early 1900s, they began to have exhibited in New York and Chicago. Then in 1914, they took 19 of the paintings to London for an exhibit at the Dore Library. They were an instant hit and his international recognition was now established.

It was all happening because the public was increasingly in love with the west and its people. The prices for his paintings were steadily increasing. Everyone was talking about the "cowboy artist".

The Russells were now able to buy property on the shores of Lake McDonald, which later became Glacier National Park.

in 1912, Russell did what historians call his greatest masterpiece of all. He was commissioned to do a mural f=for the House of Representatives at the state capitol of Montana. Russell painted the Lewis and Clark Meet the Indians at Ross' Hole . The mural measures were twelve feet high and twenty-five feet long. It is truly impressive.

Lewis and Clark Meet the Indians
Lewis and Clark Meet the Indians

Charles Russell and Prices for his Paintings

List of some of his paintings:

  • 2005 Piegans, sold for 5.6 million
  • 2008 The Hold-Up, sold for 5.2 million
  • 2008 Bronze sculpture, Buffalo Hunt, sold for 4.1 million
  • 2009 The Tribe, sold for 1.5 million
  • 2011 Water for Camp, sold for 1.5 million

 Piegan Indians
Piegan Indians
The Hold-Up
The Hold-Up
Buffalo Hunt
Buffalo Hunt
Meat for the Tribe
Meat for the Tribe

Museums Housing Russell's Works

The C.M. Russell Museum, located in Great Falls, Montana, 406-727-8787, over 2000 of his artworks, personal objects, and artifacts. The Buffalo Bill Center, Cody, Wyoming, and the Sid Richardson Museum, Ft. Worth, Texas, also have exhibits of Russell.

The Russells spent the winters in Pasadena, California, to escape the bitter winter of Montana. After Charles died in 1926, Nancy and her son, Jake, moved to Pasadena. Nancy was ill for some time before she died in 1940. She is buried beside her husband in Great Falls, Montana.

One of Charlie's quotes sums it up best:

"In my book, a pioneer is a man who turned the grass upside down, strung barb-wire over the dust, poisoned the water, cut down the trees, killed the Indian who owned the land, and called it progress."

Russell considered himself lucky to do what he loved all his life, to paint, sculpt and capture the west. He was the artist to preserve it for us.


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