Charles Marion Russell, one of the greatest artists of the American West, is born on this day in St. Louis, Missouri.
According to family lore, Charlie Russell displayed an aptitude for art from a young age, reportedly drawing pictures and modeling in wax when he was a small child. At 16 years old, Russell’s parents sent him to Montana under the care of a sheepherder. The independent young man struck out on his own soon after, finding work as a cowboy in the booming Montana ranching industry.
During long, often tedious days watching over cattle on the open range, Russell sketched the scenes around him. In the winter, when many cowboys were unemployed, Russell lived in various frontier towns and painted pictures to pay for his food and lodging. Friends said Russell also began carrying modeling clay with him during this time, making small sculptures during his spare moments.
Russell likely would have continued as an itinerant cowboy and amateur artist for the rest of his life had he not met a young woman named Nancy Cooper. In 1896, the couple married, and Russell’s new wife began to guide him toward a serious career in art. Russell found there was a growing market, especially among wealthy East Coast residents, for images of the disappearing American frontier. By 1920, he was making frequent trips to New York to paint western pictures for an increasing number of supportive patrons.
Russell rarely painted or sculpted from models or from life, relying on memory to recreate scenes from the life he had experienced. He had no real art training and little interest in the formal aesthetics of art. Though critics often ignored or derided his work, the public loved it. Initially, Russell’s paintings and sculptures documented his early life as a cowboy, but later in his career, he also began to depict scenes from the lives of American Indians and historical figures. Many of his later paintings express Russell’s melancholy attachment to the unspoiled West and his dislike of the “progress” that had plowed under the Great Plains and fenced in the open range.
Russell spent his final years in Great Falls, Montana, where he continued to paint until his death in 1926.