Charles M. Russell – Photographing The Legend

Charles M. Russell – Photographing The Legend

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Almost as familiar as the images of the American West he painted and sculpted is the figure of Charles M. Russell himself. Standing or mounted, in boots and wide-brimmed hat, sash knotted at his waist, gaze steady under a hank of unruly hair: he is the one and only “Cowboy Artist.”

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Charles M. Russell
Photographing the Legend
By Larry Len Peterson
Foreword by Brian W. Dippie

Almost as familiar as the images of the American West he painted and sculpted is the figure of Charles M. Russell himself. Standing or mounted, in boots and wide-brimmed hat, sash knotted at his waist, gaze steady under a hank of unruly hair: he is the one and only “Cowboy Artist.” What is not so well known is the story that unfolds in the myriad photographs of Russell, pictures that document a remarkable life while also reflecting the evolution of photography and the depiction of the American West at the turn of the twentieth century. This biography makes use of hundreds of images of Russell, many never before published, to explore the role of photography in shaping the artist’s public image and the making and selling of his art. More than that, the book shows how the Cowboy Artist personified what he portrayed.

Born in 1864 to a well-to-do family in St. Louis, Russell was smitten early on by the burgeoning art of photography and the images of the West that were proliferating as rapidly as the frontier was disappearing. When he moved to Helena at sixteen, his passions came together, as professional and amateur photographers made their way to the Montana Territory to document the cowboy life that Charlie was embracing and beginning to paint. Larry Len Peterson traces Russell’s image and his career from these first adventures to his apotheosis as an artist, and then to his California period and his final days as the grand statesman of the American West. Along the way we meet some of the most interesting photographers of the era, as Russell posed for Edward S. Curtis, Roland Reed, Clarence S. Bull, Hildore C. Eklund, and Dorothea Lange, among others. Because Nancy Russell used photographs to promote her artist husband’s career and artistic identity, we also see the medium’s early application as a marketing tool in the hands of a surprisingly savvy businesswoman.

Alongside Peterson’s engrossing tale of the life of this American icon, the hundreds of photographs of Russell, his friends, family members, business associates, colleagues, and celebrities of his time offer a unique view of the artist’s historic and cultural milieu—a view at once panoramic and intimate.

Larry Len Peterson, a native of Plentywood, Montana, is an enthusiastic art collector and an acknowledged expert on art and art history of the American West. His publications include Charles M. Russell: Legacy; Philip R. Goodwin: America’s Sporting and Wildlife Artist; and L. A. Huffman: Photographer of the American West. Peterson is the recipient of two Western Heritage Awards and the Scriver Bronze. Brian W. Dippie is retired as Professor of History at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. The leading authority on Russell, he is the author of numerous books and articles on the history and art of the American West, including The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy and Charles M. Russell: Word Painter.

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