Charles Marion Russell (1864 – 1926), known to most art lovers as the “Cowboy painter”, is regarded by art historians as one of the best painters of cowboy life in the late 1800s. He is also seen as an artist who portrayed the sophisticated traditions and old customs of American Indians in the 1800s very accurately. Therefore it is worthwhile for any art lover interested in that period in history to learn more about Charles Marion Russell and analyze his paintings.
When art critics and historians analyze Russell’s paintings, they all agree that his works are more authentic than most other painters of the American West because he lived and worked in the American West for years.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the important results art critics and historians find when they analyze Charles Russell’s paintings. But to help you understand his works, let’s first briefly look at the biography and career of the artist Charles Russell.
Western Artist Charles Russell Career
Charles Russell artist was born and bred in Missouri. From a very young age, he drew sketches and made clay figures of animals. He was intrigued by the American West and spent hours searching for more information about the “wild west”. When he was 16 years old, he left his home and moved to the Judith Basin area of Montana. There he started to work as a cowpuncher.
Apart from becoming a cowboy in Montana, Western artist Charles Russell also resided for some years with American Indians. And he was always creating sketches, drawings, and paintings of the environment and people around him. He worked in the American West for 11 years. So in total, he lived 46 of his 62 years in the American West.
In 1896, Russell married his wife, Nancy. In 1897, they moved to Great Falls, where they spent the rest of their lives. Nancy had a “business mind” and set up exhibitions of Russell’s work, making him famous in the United States, Canada, and London. She was determined to establish him as a painter and not just an illustrator.
When Charles Russell’s artist died in 1926, all the children in Great Falls were released from school on the day of his funeral to watch the funeral procession.
Analyzing Russell’s Paintings
Because of his life as a cowboy and his immersion into the American Indian culture and customs, he accurately and insightfully depicted the period. In addition, he always portrayed cowboy life positively.
When he painted American Indian people or aspects of their lives, he depicted the sophisticated American Indian culture he had come to know while living with them.
When you analyze Russell’s cowboy paintings, you become aware that he did not depict his subject as he thought a cowboy would have reacted in the circumstances. Still, he depicted how he experienced or actually saw the event to a great extent. He was a “real” cowboy who lived with a mountain man for a very long time.
American Indian Paintings
If you analyze his paintings with American Indians as subjects, you’ll also find that he always reflected an intimate knowledge of his subjects. He had this intimate knowledge because he was an adopted brother of the Blackfoot tribe and lived with them for years.
All his oil paintings, watercolors, and bronze sculptures reflect this intimate knowledge of his subjects, whether they were cowboys, American Indians, horses, or wild animals.
A Painter who Could Depict Everyday Cowboy Situations
If you analyze Russell’s cowboy paintings, you discover that because Russell lived the life of a cowboy for many years, he could see the humor in everyday situations – something not to be found in the works of most other “cowboy painters”.
A good example of this is his painting “Meat’s Not Meat Till It’s in the Pan”. If you analyze this painting, you’ll find that a typical cowboy dilemma is depicted humorously in this famous cowboy painting. “Meat’s Not Meat Till It’s in the Pan” depicts a cowboy who has shot his prey and is now considering how to retrieve his meal-to-be from the outcropping where it has fallen. Russell also added an extra level of dark humor to the painting by making it a winter scene with many blue shades.
Art historians and critics agree that the “theme” of this painting was only possible because Russell had such an intimate insight into cowboy life.
What you Discover when Analyzing his American Indian Paintings
A beautiful painting with an American Indian subject is “Mandan Warrior”. Russell painted this watercolor in 1906, depicting a warrior of the Mandan tribe. If you analyze the painting, you can see that the painting depicts the Mandan warrior and his horse in full war regalia, including the plumes of many different birds, deerskin, and red and blue war paint.
Art critics believe this painting is an excellent example of how Russell understood the traditions and customs of the American Indian people. It portrayed the sophisticated traditions and old customs of American Indians and their horses in the 1800s very accurately.
Why is it Worthwhile to Analyze Russell Paintings?
When you analyze Russell’s paintings, you’ll find that Charles Marion Russell depicted the American West in a personal but fresh and deeply moving way. It is widely believed that it was only possible for him to create unique paintings and sculptures of cowboys at work and play because he actually lived as a cowboy for years.
His sensitive portrayals of American Indians and his representations of the American West landscape and wildlife were only possible because of his intimate knowledge of the region.
For all art lovers enthusiastic about cowboy paintings and paintings about American Indians in the 1800s, it is worthwhile to get a list of Charles Russell’s paintings and analyze some of his famous works to get an unbiased and “true” reflection of the period. His iconic images defined the West for more than a century.