The Western Art Gallery
Charles Russell Biography

Charles Russell Biography

In Without Knocking
by Charles Marion Russell

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Charles Russell was born in Oak Hill, Missouri, in March 1864. During his lifetime, Charles Russell created more than 2500 hundred paintings, sketches and drawings. Most of the paintings by Charles Russell show the vanishing frontier in Montana in the 1880's and the 1890's (he lived in Montana beginning in 1880). His paintings depict the cowboys, the soldiers and the Indians living during this time period.

Charles Russell first arrived in Montana in 1880 at the age of sixteen, traveling west with a friend to fulfill a childhood ambition to work on a western ranch. He initially worked on a sheep ranch in the Judith Basin of Montana, in the vicinity of Great Falls. Charles Russell, though, was no sheepherder and was promptly let go by the sheep ranch less than several months later.

Following his termination from the sheep ranch, Charles Marion Russell met up with an experienced hunter and skinner, Jake Hoover. Charles Russell lived with Jake Hoover for the next 1.5 years, following him around the Judith Basin and other areas in Montana. During this time he learned extensively about the wildlife in the region, all of which would later be on display in his paintings. It was during this time that he also began to extensively sketch the wildlife he saw.

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Desperate Stand
Charles Russell
39x27 Fine Art Print
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In 1881, Charles Russell began working at a horse ranch as a wrangler in the Judith Basin. Soon after he went on his first cattle drive to the railroad. He continued working as a horse wrangler for various cattle outfits in the Judith Basin for the next seven years. He created numerous paintings and sketches, most of which he gave away to his friends, during this time.

Unlike many other western artists, Charles Russell lived the life of a cowboy, and fully understood their lifestyle. This deep understanding would show clearly in his artwork in later years.

Things began to change, quite dramatically, in 1886. The summer of 1886 had been extremely dry. The winter that arrived was a winter of severe cold and heavy snows. The cold temperatures, high winds, lack of food and overstocking of cattle in the Judith Basin all combined to create a massive upheaval in the cattle business. Many ranches during this winter lost all of their cattle to the brutal elements. During this winter he worked for the OH Ranch. The owner of the OH Ranch sent a letter asking how the cattle were faring during the winter. Charles Russell drew a small watercolor of a starving cow standing in the snow - circled by wolves. The manager of the OH Ranch, seeing the painting, threw away the letter he was writing to describe the situation and instead sent only this small postcard painting, naming it "Waiting for a Chinook." While Charles Russell made no money from this small painting, the painting made a name for Charles Russell outside of Montana and made him to more seriously consider a career as an artist.

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Loops and Swift Horses Are Surer Than He
Charles Russell
40x26 Fine Art Print
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Following this brutal winter that forever changed cattle ranching in Montana, Charles Russell stayed on as a horse wrangler until the fall of 1888. Recognizing that the Indian traditional way of life in Montana had essentially ended with the decimation of the buffalo that occurred in the early and mid 1880's, he traveled up to Canada where he spent a winter living with the Blackfoot Indian tribe, learning about their religious ceremonies, arts, crafts, hunting methods, warfare methods and their tribal legends. This knowledge he gained, coupled with a desire to portray the Indians accurately, set Charles Russell apart from other artists in this period that never understood the Indians and often portrayed them as savages out of ignorance.

Charles Russell returned to the Judith Basin later in 1889, where he noticed big changes occurring, none of which he liked. Following the disastrous winter of 1886-87, the Judith Basin began to be settled by farmers who strung up fences that closed off the open frontier and tore up the grasses. Disenchanted with what he saw, Charles Russell joined up with another cattle outfit, helping drive cattle herds up north to the Milk River area along the Canadian border. But this soon ended as more farmers made their way out to Montana and the completion of the Great Northern Railroad brought out even more.

Charles Russell then moved to Great Falls, MT, in 1893, where he began to concentrate more on his paintings and sketches. He spent much of his time along the Rocky Mountain Front in the small town of Cascade where he painted, created models and met new people.

He married three years later, marrying Nancy Cooper. Prodded by his wife, who also shrewdly managed their finances and who helped promote his paintings, Charles Russell began to seriously concentrate on his artwork. Between 1896 and 1911, Charles Russell produced a tremendous amount of color paintings as well as several sculptures.

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Doubtful Handshake
Charles Russell
20x21 Fine ...
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Charles Russell then held an open house at the Folsom Galleries in New York, titled "The West That Has Passed" in 1911. The New York Times reviewed the collection and was very impressed with both the accuracy the paintings portrayed as well as with Charles Russell himself. Following this show, the prices for Charles Russell artwork went up significantly.

While Charles Russell concentrated his paintings on accurately portraying the closing of the frontier in Montana, he also developed an interest in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He produced many paintings and sculptures portraying this historical event. His largest painting ever, "Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flatheads in Ross' Hole, September 4, 1805," measures 25x12 feet and was painted on an entire wall of the House of Representatives in the Montana State Capitol. This beautiful painting was created in 1912 and shows how extensively Charles Russell was interested in the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Charles Russell died in 1926 in Great Falls, Montana. In the years prior to his death, Charles Russell continued to produce more detailed and beautiful paintings that showed the west the way it was during the 1880's and 1890's. His popularity and standing as the last major artist interpreter of the west comes from his detailed and accurate portrayals of the west as it was during the tumultuous times of the 1880's and the 1890's.

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