Introduction from Dr. Larry Len Peterson

Charlie modeling with wax

Charlie Russell modeling wax. Eaton party in the Southwest. Almeron J. Baker photograph, October 1916. Courtesy of the Big Sky Collection, Larry and LeAnne Peterson

Russell’s art is a big tent.  Fortunately, we have a grand ringmaster, Dr. Rick Stewart, who has contributed more to our understanding of his paintings and three-dimensional works than anyone else.  In 1994 his landmark Charles M. Russell, Sculptor and this article were released in the same month to great fanfare.  I read the article first and awaited the arrival of my limited edition, green leather-bound copy of the book.  I have read this cherished tome so many times that the binding has parted with its pages.   At last, a road map to the challenging journey of understanding Russell’s lifetime casts had been published.  My wife LeAnne and I soon flew to Fort Worth, Texas where we were graciously hosted by Rick on a grand tour of the Amon Carter Museum, and of course, their Russell lifetime bronze collection, the only complete set in existence.

Yet this was not the first publication that demonstrated Stewart’s brilliance.  His The American West: Legendary Artists of the Frontier (1986) has been a standard reference book on Western American art since its publication.  That was followed by his noted works:  Carl Wimar: Chronicler of the Missouri River Frontier (1991), Frederic Remington: Masterpieces from the Amon Carter (1992), and later The Grand Frontier: Remington and Russell in the Amon Carter Museum (2001), among others.

Rick grew up in bucolic Walla Walla, Washington, the terminus of the Old Mullan Road, which originated in Fort Benton, Montana—forty-two miles northeast of Great Falls.   But he didn’t find Russell by following it.  His long path to Russell scholarship began when he matriculated at Williams College in Massachusetts to study studio arts and literature.  His PhD was awarded in Art History at the prestigious University of Delaware.  He then taught American Studies at Williams College and completed an internship in 1976 at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., before heading west to Texas in 1983.  After serving as curator at the Dallas Museum of Art, he moved on to take a similar position at the Amon Carter Museum.  The famed Sid Willis collection of Russell art, which had been displayed at his Mint Saloon in Great Falls for decades, was purchased by Amon Carter in 1952.  In time, Rick advanced to the position of museum director (1995-2006) and supervised a grand addition to the museum.  He then became senior curator of Western painting and sculpture until his retirement several years ago.

But for Russell bronze lovers, Rick’s efforts in that arena quickly accelerated when he gained access in 1989 to the Nancy Russell’s estate papers, housed at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.  It ushered in a new era of Russell scholarship.  For example, his close friend Brian W. Dippie’s Word Painter (1993), a collection of Russell’s illustrated letters, was one result.  Another was Rick’s study of Russell’s works in three dimensions, Charles M. Russell, Sculptor.   It provided an invaluable record of the artist’s lifetime bronze casts and distinguished them from the vast number of posthumous casts made from his original wax and plaster models.  Beginning in the 1950s, those unauthorized casts along with spurious recasts of his lifetime bronzes flooded the art market for decades.  For sure, Stewart’s book remains the single most important publication ever on the art of Russell.  Still, more was to come.

After studying for over a decade the technique and proficiency of Russell’s work in the demanding medium of watercolor, in 2012 Rick organized a traveling exhibition, Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell.  It was accompanied by a catalog of the same title that anticipated his second monumental contribution to Russell studies, Charles M. Russell: Watercolors, 1887-1926, published by the Amon Carter Museum in 2016.  As Dr. Brian W. Dippie wrote, “Charles M. Russell, Sculptor and Charles M. Russell: Watercolors, 1887-1926 will remain pillars of Western art scholarship for generations to come.”

So you are in for a treat.  Rick Stewart’s article on Russell sculpture is one of the most informative articles ever published in “Remembering Russell’s West.”  A point we all would like to emphasize: Russell’s lifetime bronzes include those up until 1940, the year Nancy Russell died.  That’s because after his modeling of a subject was over, Charlie—with the exception of those modeled in New York City in 1904 and 1905—had nothing to do with refining the molds or wax models, unlike Remington and most other sculptors.  Wife Nancy Russell controlled all facets of the bronze production process and marketing.

While painting was a continual and sometimes painful learning process for Russell, sculpting came naturally to him, something his friend Bill Rance, owner of the famous Silver Dollar Saloon in Great Falls, had appreciated when he roomed with him for two years in the early 1890s.  Rance recalled, “He modeled so much that sometimes it got on my nerves.  When we’d go to the room at night, Charley lay in bed with his hand hangin’ down close to the floor.  Pretty soon he’d bring up a pig or dog, or some other little animal.  And when I’d get tired, I’d say:  aw hell, Russ, fegit that stuff.  Let’s go to sleep.  But I don’t think there was a morning when we got up in that room in the back of the Canary block that there wasn’t a little animal sittin’ unde the edge of the bed.”

Many believe sculpture above any other art form informs us about what this world is all about. For sure, Rick Stewart has opened the eyes of all Russell lovers to Charlie’s world like no other.

Russell with actor William S. Hart and artist Will James

Russell, actor William S. Hart, and artist Will James, admiring The Bucker and the Buckaroo bronze, Southern California, March 1924. Courtesy of the Big Sky Collection, Larry and LeAnne Peterson.



Rick Stewart
Russell’s West, Vol 2, No 2
Autumn, 1994

In November 1936 James B. Rankin, who was preparing a biography and catalogue of the work of Charles M. Russell, wrote the famous American sculptor John Gutzon Borglum for an assessment of the Montana artist’s work. Borglum replied that there were three artists “deserving of great place” in their portrayal of the American West: his brother Solon H. Borglum, Frederic Remington, and Charles M. Russell. “Of the three Russell unquestionably drew action as no one else,” Borglum responded, but he was quick to add that the work of all three men exemplified different aspects of the frontier. “In Remington you feel the presence of law, order, creeping in, just on the edge of wild adventure. In Solon Borglum you feel always the inner soul…the poetry and grief belong to Solon’s work; the life in all its freedom to Russell; to Remington – even the smell, a little, of the studio – artificial – has crept in; none of this in the other two.” Like many of Russell’s contemporaries, Borglum was struck by an element of genius in the Montana artist’s work, unfettered by the constraints of artistic convention. “I think him the least sophisticated and most naturally unspoiled by academic influences of any one of our few great artists,” he wrote.

Solon Borglum, Frederic Remington, and Charles M. Russell were all sculptors of the American West, but the differences in their work reflected, in part, their varied backgrounds and artistic training. Like Remington, Russell created his first sculptures in bronze after his career was already well underway, and both men succeeded with little or no formal training in sculpture. Indeed, Russell began to develop his natural abilities as a sculptor while in childhood. “When I was a little kid girls ust to make wax flowers,” Russell scrawled many years later in a note to his protege, Joe De Yong. “I would steel wax and mak toy hosses green and red ones.” The artist’s wife, Nancy Cooper Russell, recorded one amusing incident that had been related to her by family members. “While looking at pictures. he found a cut of an American eagle he liked but wanted him to have a rabbit in his claws for the little eagles that could not get out of the nest,” she wrote. “When the model was finished he printed the words that were under the picture-`copyright reserved.’ His mother said ‘What’s that, Charlie?’ And Charlie said, ‘oh don‘t you know? That’s his name.’‘‘ Stories of Russell’s prowess in modeling became more common once he arrived as a young man on the Montana frontier. William Korell, an early rancher in the Judith Basin, once recalled that Russell was more interested in making sculpture than doing work. “While we were sitting by the fire, he took from his pocket a ball of beeswax about the size of a goose-egg; after warming it, [he] moulded the head of a horse, then an elk‘s head,” he wrote. “I remember he used to keep the fingernail on his right hand little finger longer than the rest and with this he would carve out the necessary lines on the animals he was modeling.“

By the time he married Nancy Cooper and gained a measure of fame as Montana’s “Cowboy Artist,” many of Russell‘s contemporaries considered him more gifted as a sculptor than in any other medium. Indeed, his natural ability as a sculptor aided his development as a painter. “By modeling one learns unconsciously to draw,” the American sculptor William Ordway Partridge observed in a treatise on sculpture techniques published in 1895. “Modeling should be undertaken before drawing, as it is useful to the painter almost as to the sculptor.” Russell unwittingly followed this advice. Throughout his career, he made three-dimensional models to work out problems in his pictures. Joe De Yong noted that Russell often made “small, rough model groups in beeswax, modeling clay, or plasticene,” which were set under direct light and shifted for the best arrangement of light and shadow. Once the Russells began visiting New York, the artist’s sculptural achievements were singled out for special praise. “He has a remarkable facility for seizing upon the instantaneous movement of animals in action and nailing it down, and he gets character in everything he touches,” noted the artist‘s close friend, the painter Philip Goodwin. “He very often models his figures before painting them, and this, I believe, accounts for their exceptional vitality.” In fact, apart from his fame as an artist of cowboys and Indians, Russell was regarded as one of the finest wildlife artists of his day. Daniel Carter Beard, who first met Russell while he was editor of Recreation, an outdoor magazine, was stunned to see the artist casually model a skillful representation of an antelope during their conversation. “I think this side of Charles Russell has not been emphasized in the biographical sketches of him,” Beard told James Rankin ten years after the artist‘s death. “His ability to model an animal like this from memory means more than skill; it means genius of a high order.”

Nancy Russell, who became an active manager and tireless champion of her husband‘s art, was among the first to realize the potential of his sculpture in bronze. In New York, friends had told them there was not an established market for the painted wax or plaster models, but bronzes were another story. During his initial visit to the city, Russell modeled Smoking Up, the first of his works to be cast in bronze. While it is likely the Russells visited Tiffany‘s on Fifth Avenue to view the bronze sculptures by Frederic Remington and others on display in the salesrooms there, the real catalyst for Russell‘s career as a sculptor in bronze occurred in Saint Louis. In 1904 the Russells attended the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, where an extraordinary amount of sculpture was on display. Covering more than twelve hundred acres with broad prospects more than a mile in length, the fair featured over a thousand outdoor sculptures dedicated to the theme of the Louisiana Purchase and westward expansion. Here Russell saw enlarged versions of western subjects by Solon Borglum, Remington, and many others. In the vast Art Palace (now the Saint Louis Art Museum), more than 350 works by 93 sculptors represented a full range of styles and techniques. Many were small in scale, and many depicted western or wildlife subjects by nearly every noted sculptor of the era. The display included a special section of small bronzes of animals by Edward Kemeys, who was then regarded as the premier American sculptor of wildlife. Although Russell quickly succeeded Kemeys in this respect, the initial impetus for the artist’s small-scale bronzes of wildlife and other subjects which were to follow derived in part from the Russells’ experiences at the Exposition.

From 1904 until Russell‘s death in October 1926, bronze sculpture played an important role in his artistic oeuvre. While he created the models for approximately 46 subjects in his lifetime, his wife oversaw the process of the casting, exhibition, and sale of the bronzes—a role that would continue until her own death in May 1940. Initially, Russell created ambitious compositions, such as The Buffalo HuntCounting Coup, or The Scalp Dance, that rivaled his paintings for their fineness of detail. Although these were consigned to Tiffany‘s, sales were disappointingly few and far between. However, things improved when Russell began modeling smaller and more refined subjects that included wildlife. His new compositions were less detailed, but no less powerful as sculpture. Some of these sculptures were also decorative and utilitarian, modeled in the form of ash trays or bookends. Throughout the period Russell‘s sculpture was at the cutting edge of developments in the field of American sculpture in general. The National Sculpture Society, fresh from its triumph at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, had urged American sculptors to produce small, more inexpensive bronzes that would appeal to a broader audience. At the same time, works that emphasized utility and function were encouraged. Russell‘s bronzes were very much a part of this trend, and his works found enthusiastic buyers. During the Russells‘ lifetimes, the most significant collections of the artist’s bronzes were amassed by Philip G. Cole, George D. Sack, and Nancy Russell herself. Cole‘s collection is now at the Gilcrease Museum, while Sack ‘s important collection has been largely dispersed. The complete set of bronzes that belonged to Nancy Russell is now at the Amon Carter Museum.

In the intervening half century following the dispersal of Nancy Russell‘s estate, posthumous casting activity has more than quadrupled the number of bronzes attributed to Russell‘s hand. Despite his well-deserved fame in the annals of American art, there have been no extended studies of Russell’s contribution as a sculptor. Moreover, there is misunderstanding and confusion regarding Russell’s actual work in bronze. In some respects, this lack of knowledge also extends to the artist’s own contemporaries. Few of the American sculptors at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition have been accorded serious study. To remedy this, the Amon Carter Museum is publishing Charles M. Russell, Sculptor, a 400-page study accompanied by more than 750 illustrations, due out in November 1994. The book is based in part on an examination of the complete collection of the bronzes in the Museum‘s collection that were originally part of the Nancy Russell estate. The book traces the artist’s overall career as a sculptor, comparing his works with those produced by his contemporaries. Many of Russell’s notable models in painted wax and plaster will be examined, and Nancy Russell’s own collection of more than 110 of these works – which she kept in glass cases at her home, “Trail’s End” in Pasadena – have been completely reconstructed. In addition, Russell‘s lifetime subjects in bronze are arranged chronologically and presented in a catalogue section comprising approximately 250 pages, accompanied by illustrations showing multiple views, inscriptions, and comparative details. To address the issue of questionable castings, Charles M. Russell, Sculptor, includes an appendix that identifies these subjects, the majority of which were cast from the painted wax and plaster models in the Nancy Russell estate.

“For thirty years, I saw every picture from the blank canvas to the finished product and Charlie talked to me about each subject as he worked on it and the bronzes also,” Nancy Russell wrote James Rankin less than four years before her death. “To have a fine book of these things will be a great service to the public for generations to come….” Although nearly sixty years have passed since Mrs. Russell expressed her wishes, it is hoped that this study of Charles M. Russell’s sculpture will serve as a proper testament to her undying faith in her husband’s art.

Rick Stewart is the curator at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. He is also the author of numerous publications, catalogs, and studies, including Charles M. Russell, Sculptor, published by the Amon Carter Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., and scheduled for release just this month.

Essay PDF

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