The works of art of the Western American artist Charles Russell are known to most art lovers. However, he is especially known to art lovers who are enthusiastic about the history of the American West in the late 1800s. Charles Marion Russell is widely regarded as one of the best painters of the Western American way of life during that period. He depicted the cowboys’ life and the sophisticated traditions and customs of Native Americans.
He created more than 2,000 paintings of the American West, and when you look at the list of Charles Russell paintings, you’ll find that, in principle, four main topics frequently appear in his paintings.
In this article, we’ll look at Russell’s career and then identify the topics frequently appearing in his paintings.
About Charles Marion Russell
Charles Marion Russell (1864 – 1926) grew up in Missouri, where from a very young age, he started to make clay figures and drew sketches of animals. As he grew up, he became increasingly interested in the American West. He was intrigued by it and spent a lot of time reading about the “Wild West”.
Because he wanted to experience life in West America, he left his home when he was 16 years old and stayed in the Judith Basin area of Montana as a cowpuncher. After a time as a cowpuncher and cowboy in Montana, he left the “cowboy life” and resided for some years with Native Americans. Because he lived and worked as a cowboy for a time and was also immersed in the Native American culture and customs, he could depict the period with insight.
In 1896, Russell married Nancy, and they moved to Great Falls. They stayed most of the rest of their lives in Great Falls. It was from Great Falls that Nancy arranged exhibitions of Russell’s work and made him famous in the United States and London.
When Russell died in 1926, all the children in Great Falls were excused from school on the day of his funeral as the whole community wanted to watch the funeral procession. He was one of the few artists who were well-known and even famous during their lifetime. And until today, art scholars are studying the various aspects of the Western artist Charles Russell’s career.
Charles Russell’s Paintings are “honest”.
Because of his personal experience in the “Wild West”, the works of the Western artist Charles Russell are deemed very “honest”. He worked and made sketches in the American West for many years.
Although he portrayed cowboy life positively throughout his career, he never depicted cowboys or Native Americans as “good” or “bad”. Instead, when he depicted the Native Americans, he showed the sophisticated Native American culture he had come to know in the American West.
Topics of the Paintings of Charles Russell Artist from America
The best way to determine what topics frequently appear in Charles Russell’s paintings is to categorize his thousands of paintings into four basic topics. However, before we list and discuss the topics, just a comment. You have to remember that there are a few critics who are not big fans of Russell’s work and sarcastically will tell you that Russell’s works are always about any of the following: bison hunts, war parties, buckaroos, bucking broncs, bloody battles, and brawls, dusty cattle drives, and campfires.
Serious students of the Charles Russell artist do not agree with this generalization. Although it is to a certain extent true that there are many of these topics in his work, there is a much more sophisticated method to determine the frequent topics.
These serious scholars categorize the topics of Russell’s paintings as follows:
- Cowboy life.
- Native American people, culture, and lifestyle.
- Women (Native American women and cowgirls).
- Historical events.
Let’s now look at the different topics. For your convenience, we also give a short synopsis of some of the works we list.
“Cowboy life” is the topic Charles Russell is best known for. He is, after all, generally called the “Cowboy painter”. The cowboy topics include various situations – from breakfast scenes to humorous ones.
“Meat’s Not Meat Till It’s in the Pan”, for instance, 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.
Native American People, Culture, and Lifestyle
“Indian Buck” depicts a Native American man wearing colorful leather, fabric, and feather clothes, carrying what seems like a rifle in a handmade leather case. It is a very sympathetic portrayal of a Native American man. Most art historians agree that Russell rendered homage to Native Americans with this painting.
Other paintings on the same topic include “Mandan Warrior” and “The Marriage Ceremony” (“Indian Love Call”). The “Mandane Warrior” watercolor shows a warrior of the Mandan tribe and his horse in full war regalia. The “Indian Love Call” is a depiction of some of the marriage customs of the Native Americans.
One of the famous Charles Marion Russell paintings is “Indian Squaw”. When you look at this painting and his other paintings of Native American women, you realize how well he knew the customs of Native American women. “Indian Squaw” shows the beauty of this particular woman. Interestingly, in those years, the term “squaw” was used to describe a Native American woman who was a white man’s wife. But in Russell’s painting, she is respectfully depicted.
Cowgirls were also topics of his paintings. “Cowgirl on a Bucking Horse” is an excellent example of a painting of a cowgirl.
Charles Marion Russell loved to depict historical events. Paintings such as “The Custer Fight”, “The Indians discovering Lewis and Clark”, and “The Attack” are all about historical events taking place in the American West during the late 1800s.
Interestingly, “The Attack” pictures a Native American attack on cowboys, but Russell doesn’t indicate why the attack had been made.
Charles Marion Russell is known as the “Cowboy painter”, but he also created paintings depicting other aspects of Western America. He was an artist who understood cowboy and Native American customs in the West.