Charles Marion Russell (1864–1926) masterfully captured the art and soul of the American West through 4,000+ recorded works featuring oil paintings, watercolor, sculpture, and writing. Russell achieved this by establishing an inspired visual record celebrating Indigenous culture, Western narratives, grand landscapes, and majestic wildlife scenes. While his art is considered historic, his spirit is timeless.
Though Charlie was an internationally acclaimed “original cowboy artist,” he humbly valued friendship more than fame. His infectious humor, gifted storytelling, advocacy, and illustrated “paper talk” letters continue to elevate a treasured legacy. Charlie inspired loyalty from a diverse inner circle that included family, Great Falls neighbors, contemporary artists, North Plains tribal members, and fellow luminaries such as John Ford and Will Rogers.
The C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Mont., holds one of the largest Russell collections. The Western art complex includes Charlie’s fully-restored home and studio, a National Historic Landmark, where he lived and created for 24 years alongside wife and business partner Nancy Cooper Russell.
Charles Marion Russell (1864–1926) was many things: consummate Westerner, historian, advocate of the Northern Plains Indians, cowboy, writer, outdoorsman, philosopher, environmentalist, conservationist, and not least, artist.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Russell dreamed of becoming a cowboy and living the exciting life of men on the range. In 1880, Russell came to the Judith Basin of central Montana a few days after his 16th birthday to try his hand as a cowpuncher. After a brief, unsuccessful stint on a sheep ranch, Jake Hoover, a hunter and trader, took Russell under his wing and taught him the ways of the wilderness. Russell spent two years as Hoover’s apprentice, working with and living in Hoover’s cabin on the South Fork of the Judith River. (Experience the Hoover Cabin)
In 1882, Russell finally secured a job as a night herder with several cattle outfits operating in the Judith Basin. This was the perfect job for the young artist because it gave him the opportunity during the day to observe, sketch, and document the activities and excitement of the cow camps. He worked as a cowboy and wrangler for 11 years before retiring in 1893 to become a full-time artist.
Russell greatly admired the Northern Plains Indians, closely observing their ways during summer of 1888, when he lived near the camps of the Blackfoot, Piegan, and Blood Indians in Alberta, Canada. This experience affected him for the rest of his life, and it is reflected in the many detailed works he created of Plains Indian life.
In 1896, Russell married Nancy Cooper, and she quickly assumed the role of business manager and promoter of her husband’s career. In 1900, the couple built a modest frame house in Great Falls and, three years a later, a log studio that Russell filled with his collection of Indian clothing, utilitarian objects, weapons, cowboy gear, “horse jewelry,” and other Western props useful in depicting scenes of the Old West. Russell completed the majority of his significant works in the studio. By the early 1900s, Charlie Russell had become an internationally known artist, yet he opted to spend his entire life after the age of 16 in Montana. In 1916, Charlie and Nancy adopted their son, Jack. Russell died of a heart attack in his Great Falls home on October 24, 1926.
Russell created approximately 4,000 works of art during his lifetime. His love of Montana and the life he observed and participated in there, shaped his art and his personal philosophy for 46 years. His art is first and foremost that of a storyteller, and it was informed by his remarkable ability to capture in paint, bronze, ink, and wax the personalities and events of his time and place. He was one of the first Western artists to live the majority of his life in the West. For this reason, Charlie knew his subject matter intimately, setting the standard for many Western artists to follow.
Charles M. Russell
Excerpt from the American West Reimagined
By Larry Len Peterson
Charles M. Russell, the nostalgic, held tight memories of a youthful past when the West belonged to God. There was a sense of loss, as poignant as losing a loved one. The specter of what this loss meant loomed over Russell the rest of his life. He was the quintessential nostalgic who grabbed history and married it to idealized memory and imagination. For example, despite Russell never witnessing a buffalo hunt, it became the basis for his most popular and desired art. Nancy Russell explained, “No man can be a painter without imagination.” The Romantic art of the nineteenth century was the cornerstone to build the West reimagined for not only Russell, but also his contemporaries and future artists. Russell in his poem Myth is the Mother of Romance wrote, “Myth is the Mother of Romance and I am her oldest son, Her family is small, just two sons that’s all, Brother Fiction the other one.”
No Western American artist fought back harder against racism, sexism, and championed environmentalism more than did Charles M. Russell. He thrived on imagining a time when the land was pristine, women were held in high regard, and people of color were the heroes. Paradoxically, the industrialized world championed just the opposite. To many, his life appeared odd—that cowboy hat, that sash, that unruly hair, that folksy talk. He and his art embraced an identity of an exile from a different place and time, which is even more appealing today. In that way, Russell was a visionary who instilled hope in all who saw his art, and his heart. For those reasons and much more, he is the most beloved of all the Western American artists. The Charles M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana; the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma in Norman; the Charles M. Russell Center Series on Art and Photography of the American West (books published by the University of Oklahoma University Press); the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana; the Russell Riders; and the Russell Skull Society are a testament to that fact. The Cowboy Artists of America have been called “The Sons of Charlie Russell” by art historian B. Byron Price for good reason.
Russell was a legendary painter, sculptor, and author. He understood that to fall in love with the mountains all you have to do is open your eyes. But to fall in love with the plains, you have to open your soul. Ever humble and self-effacing, as his fame skyrocketed, he never forgot his cowboy friends. Russell lived in the past and his wife Nancy who was his business manager lived for the future. How could a self-trained artist living in remote Montana become the highest paid artist in America? It’s quite a story.
Touching through time, Charles M. Russell and his art, make hope and the American West rhyme.