Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926) is one of the greatest painters of the American West. He left over 2000 paintings depicting cowboys, Indians and Far West landscapes from the late 19th century. He is also the creator of bronze sculptures.
Art has always been part of Russell's life. As a child he made sketches and tried to reproduce animals on pieces of paper and made clay figures of animals. Very interested in the Wild West, he spent hours reading the stories of explorers and trappers.
At the age of 16, he left school and went to Montana to work on a sheep ranch. In 1882, aged 18, Russell worked as a cattle keeper on a ranch in Montana. The rough winter of 1886 and 1887 inspired a painting that gave him a taste of publicity.
When the foreman of the ranch receives a letter from the owner asking how the herd survived the winter, instead of writing to him, the foreman sent a postcard watercolor that Russell painted showing a sick cow surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves, under a gray winter sky. The owner shows the postcard to friends and business acquaintances and finally displays it in a showcase at Helena. This watercolor was at the origin of a wave of regular orders for Russell. The title of the drawing "Waiting for a Chinook" became the title for a more detailed painting, which is one of Russell's best-known.
Waiting for a chinook
In 1896, Russell married Nancy. In 1897, the couple moved to Great Falls, where Russell spent the majority of the rest of his life. Nancy is generally credited with having made Russell an internationally renowned artist. She had set up numerous exhibitions for her husband throughout the United States and London, which made many followers of Russell's works. Nancy was the manager of her husband.
In 1904, Russell's first bronze was sunk. The paintings were already well known in the form of postcards and color reproductions. Commands for illustrations and a major contract for the creation of a calendar followed, which contributed to the view that after Frederic Remington's death in 1909, Russell became the greatest North American artist inspired by the West. Russell became a local celebrity and won acclaim from critics around the world.
Russell the artist came to the American cultural scene at a time when the "Far West" was most popular and sold to the public in many forms, ranging from novels to ten sous, to the "Wild West" entrepreneurs such as Buffalo Bill and the westerns that became a staple.
Russell made many friends among the well-to-do collectors, including actors and filmmakers such as William S. Hart, Harry Carey, Will Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks.
Russell, who had resumed his work as a night watchman for herds, felt around 1893 that the glory days of the cattle industry in the great pastures were over. It was time to turn to Art as a means of subsistence. And so promoted by an outstanding business agent, he began his fine career.
Russell came to Canada several times. His first visit dates from 1888. From Helena, Montana, he rode north with two friends at the end of May. He spent the summer fishing, hunting, and painting. He took the opportunity to meet the Amerindian peoples of the region: the Stonies, the Sarcis, the Blackfoot, the Blood and the Peigans. He felt sympathy for the resistance of the Amerindians in advance of the whites. In September he returned to Helena.
In 1912, Russell exhibited at the first Calgary Stampede, attracting both international attention and new patrons. A new exhibition, in 1913, at the Stampede in Winnipeg. The relations he established in Canada during these events led him to his only overseas exhibition at the Doré Galleries in London in 1914. The increase in prizes awarded for his canvases testifies to his success on the artistic scene; by 1920, only one oil sold for $ 10,000. A Russell mural entitled "Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians" is attached to the Capitol Building in Helena, Montana.
Russell was also a great storyteller and a writer. A collection of short stories entitled "Trails Plowed Under" was published a year after his death. In 1929, Nancy published a collection of his letters entitled "Good Medicine".
On October 26, 1926, the day of Russell's funeral, all the children of Great Falls were released from school to attend the funeral procession.