The cover of this year‘s auction catalog is a preciously insightful picture of Charlie Russell working in his studio with High, Wide, and Handsome, his nicely framed masterwork in watercolor hanging on the wall just above his head. He is putting the finishing touches on another masterpiece in oil titled Salute to the Robe Trade. Shortly thereafter in 1921, Nancy Russell sold one which was executed on a 30 X 48 inch canvas to California oil man William Armstrong for $10,000. At that time this sum was considered the highest price ever paid to a living American artist. Charlie was enjoying a period of peak output and receiving
full approbation in recognition of his creative artistic skills.
High, Wide, and Handsome is a superbly executed cowboy action watercolor by Charles Marion Russell in 1919. It’s alternative title is Montana Show Rider. It was commissioned at the apex of the artist’s career by Guy Weadick, a famous trick roper and Wild West Showman who in 1919 had just been re-engaged by the four founding rancher/financial underwriters and organizers of the original 1912 rodeo better known as the Calgary Stampede. In 1919, their goal was to bring that first very successful initial rodeo event back to Calgary as the “Victory Stampede” celebrating the end of World War One.
For Charlie and Nancy Russell, their first Stampede had proven to be a huge stimulus to Charlie’s artistic career. As noted Russell scholar, Brian Dippie, has observed: “Russell’s sales at the 1912 Calgary Stampede were nothing short of astounding. Thirteen of twenty paintings listed in his catalog… found buyers and two buyers accounted for nine of the paintings sold. Among those significant buyers was Alec Newton who worked for Pat Burns, one of the big four stampede organizers. Also a member of the Grenfell family, JP Morgan’s London-based financial sector partner was an active buyer.”
Remarkably, the Russell‘s first success in Calgary set up conditions for further important advances in Charlie’s career. In Back-Tracking in Memory, Nancy’s recently published biographical memoir of the Russell art enterprise, she writes:
Canada [at the first Calgary Stampede in 1912 as well as a year later in Winnipeg] we received so much encouragement to show Charlie’s work in London that we began to think seriously of such a plan. As we were going to New York that winter with the pictures for exhibition, I started immediately to lay the foundation for an exhibition in London [in April 1914]. Arrangements were made with the Dore’ Gallery in Bond Street. [Today these are the auctioneer offices of Sotheby’s].
My first thrill came in sending a cable and getting a reply dated before the original message had left me! After our exhibition in New York we arranged to bond the pictures so that they would get into England out again without trouble.
“The boxes of pictures had been delivered to the gallery, and the manager was anxious that they should be hung as soon as possible. So that was the next thing to be done–to get the exhibition in order.
When the pictures were in place, a great banner was swung out over Bond Street, announcing ‘Charles M. Russell, cowboy painter of the West that has passed.’
And often later, as we rode along the bus, we would see sandwich men telling their customers about the exhibition.
It was an education to meet the art critics in London. They did not want to be introduced to either Charlie or me until after their criticisms had been written. They didn’t want our personalities to influence them in their judgment.
But the results couldn’t have been any better if we had tried to tell them how good we were. The English people like outdoor action pictures. Many of them are great travelers and have seen a good deal of life, so when it is put on a canvas that it is true to life, they appreciate it. So Charlie’s work was received with marked enthusiasm and understanding.
Once the favorable criticisms had reached the press, there was an excellent attendance at the exhibition. It was interesting to see an older man with a group of young boys taking pleasure in the collection, asking such natural questions about the handling of horses and cattle. …
So people were happy and gay; the exhibition continued to be well attended; and we made friends and were invited to English homes which we understood was the thing that never happened!
However, Charlie had so much that he was doing for the world that the English accepted him as a man who had done his part [by informing the public about western American history] for coming generations. They recognized his genius and were not slow to say so.”
As Brian Dippie has summed up the situation: “Inaugurated in 1912 as a one-time affair, the Calgary Stampede marked a milestone in Russell‘s career, his first one-man international exhibition. It was a spectacular success–and when Guy Weadick, the promotional genius behind the first Calgary Stampede, was hired in 1919 to stage a second, a Victory Stampede celebrating the end of the great war, Russell promptly agreed to another exhibition. He evidently also agreed to provide original advertising art. A Rodeo Rider Loses [by Russell] was reproduced on one of the Stampede posters, and it is probable High, Wide, and Handsome was used as well. What is known for certain is that both watercolors were in Nancy Russell‘s possession at the time of her death in 1940 [most undoubtedly as fond reminders of the couple’s halcyon days of art sales].
In Chapter Two of the catalog for the 2019 centennial celebration of the 1919 Victory Stampede, Emily Crawford Wilson has identified a dozen or so bucking bronco images that were used in “Promoting the Stirring! Startling! Scintillating! 1919 Victory Stampede”. Although Russell was not the artist creating all of those images, he did do at least two of them (most notably High, Wide, and Handsome) and probably helped recommend Ed Borein to do many of the others. In any case, each and every image conveyed the essence of spirited bronco busting that we see so clearly in Russell‘s exceptional rendition of High, Wide, and Handsome.
Put another way, this work fully captures that frontier rodeo spirit of the “post–Great War” period. Other evidence of that feeling at the Victory Stampede can be found in the undoubtedly “photo-shopped” image of Charlie Russell on a bucking bronco. This occurs twice in the 2019 Stampede Centennial Catalogue, at first, five pages inside the cover and again on page 32. This is clearly a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Charlie’s horsemanship skills. Charlie is clear that he much admired the ability of his longtime cowboy friend, Con Price, to master dangerous horses. However, he also frequently expressed no desire or ability to compete with Con Price in that kind of arena!
The successful bidder on High, Wide, and Handsome will receive a copy of the 2019 Centennial exhibition catalog that contains the images cited above. The Canadian songwriter Ian Tyson is a past recipient of the C.M. Russell Museum’s Heritage Award. His song titled The Gift is a deeply moving, yet succinct, tale about the life of Charlie Russell. It concludes with Tyson’s oft repeated chorus:
God made Montana for the wild man
For the Piegan and Sioux and Crow
but He saved His greatest gift for Charlie
Said get her all down before she goes–Charlie
You gotta get her all down because she’s bound to go
In 1919, Charles Marion Russell was well into wrapping up the first third of the last decade of his life as an outstanding American artist. In creating his High, Wide, and Handsome masterwork, he was indeed getting her all down along with Salute of the Robe Trade and others because she’s bound to go! And indeed, not all that long before he was called to go!
High, Wide, and Handsome is on display at the C.M. Russell Museum through Thursday, August 18. To purchase tickets for the auction and get information on remote bidding options, please visit therussellsale.org