Charles M. Russell holds a special place as one of the West’s most beloved visual storytellers. An exciting new book tells the little-known story of his accomplished watercolors.
In 1865, the Civil War a freshly minted horror in the fledgling nation’s history, Horace Greeley fueled the dreams of Manifest Destiny by exhorting all young men to “Go West and grow up with the country.” They did, and they did not stop. Fourteen years later, on the easternmost cusp of the trans-Mississippi West, a St. Louis teenager named Charlie Russell heeded Greeley’s echoing charge and, with the twin dreams of being a cowboy and an artist, struck out for Montana Territory.
“Kid” Russell (an early nickname) arrived in the territory in 1880 and took up with Jake Hoover, a trapper who “could empty a Winchester faster than any other man I ever knew,” Russell later recalled. The Kid shared Hoover’s small cabin in the Judith Basin, and besides hunting and trapping, he began wrangling horses during the spring and fall roundups and working for regional outfits. In 1881, the Kid worked his first cattle drive from the basin to the rail terminus in the eastern territory. He was at last living his dream — or one of them anyway. ...
For eleven years, Russell earned his keep as a cowboy. But like his guns and bedroll, he always carried with him a small bundle of watercolors and brushes, sketching whenever and wherever he could.
Of course, Russell’s epic story requires a book big enough to tell it! The January 2016 publication of Charles M. Russell: Watercolors, 1887 – 1926 marks the first complete history of Charles Russell’s watercolors and the only scientific study of the artist’s technique and materials. ...
Like the Old West, Charles Russell continues to inhabit a special place in our shared imagination, for in that great age of stories he stands as perhaps the most beloved visual storyteller. When he died in 1926, he had painted some 1,100 watercolors, a vast majority of them depictions of a historic time and place that endure in a timeless present. As the artist himself observed, “The West is dead my friend / But writers hold the seed / And what they saw / Will live and grow / Again to those who read.”
— from the foreword of Charles M. Russell: Watercolors, 1887 – 1926
One of Charles M. Russell’s closest cowboy friends from his teenage range days was Edward C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott, who first met the artist in 1885, about five years after Russell arrived in Montana Territory. Abbott was a literate and knowledgeable cowpuncher who had helped drive a cattle herd up to the Montana Territory from Texas. His later memoir of the old trail days, We Pointed Them North, is still regarded as a western classic.
“In the spring of 1886, the D-S roundup started at the mouth of Elk Creek on the Flatwillow, and the whole Moccasin roundup joined us and went clear ’round,” Abbott recalled to a newspaper writer in 1930. “We worked the Flatwillow and Maginnis range and started to work the Moccasin range when the whole Judith Basin roundup showed up on Bear Creek, so we had three roundups working together. It was the most men I ever saw on one roundup,” he said. “I often think that Charlie got a lot of inspiration for some of his pictures from what he saw on that roundup for, believe me, there was a lot of the best cow hands that ever rode the range from Texas to Canada on that roundup.”
Abbott remembered that he and Russell spent a lot of time together because both of them worked as horse wranglers. Russell would put his horses belonging to the Judith roundup on one side of Plum Creek, while Abbott would put his from the Maginnis roundup on the other side. Then the two men would join up and sit astride their horses.
“Many an hour we sat on a hill watching our horses and talking,” Abbott told the reporter. “We had the same love for the range and the West. He never quit asking me about the Texas trail and the ranges south of Montana as he had never worked south of the Yellowstone. I told him lots of stories of the range and coming up the trail. I had a kind of musical instrument called a ‘kazoo’ and used to play it.” For his part, Russell later commented that when Abbott played, the entire herd of horses raised their heads with ears pricked up, listening as the kazoo “unloaded notes on the breeze that would make the coyote taking his day nap in the rim rocks think he’s having bad dreams.”
... “Charlie liked a good rig on his horse,” Nancy Russell wrote after her husband’s death. “He himself wore a good hat and boots. The rest of his clothes did not make so much difference. He was most careful of his outfit. His ropes were always neatly coiled, silver conchos polished, and leather clean. These trappings were a constant reminder of the people, their lives, and the country he was painting,” she remembered. “There were fashion leaders among the cow people, and these fellows would put in a lot of time looking at their shadow cast by the sun as they rode along. In cloudy weather they were never very happy.”
Many of those besides Abbott who worked with Russell on the early roundups also recalled his steady artistic activity. Russell later told his protégé Joe DeYong that he kept all his materials in the pocket of his slicker, rolled and tied behind the cantle of his saddle, or in his “war bag,” which contained his other “possibles” and was carried in his bedroll. Not surprisingly, he often found himself short of supplies when working on the roundups. Although things could be ordered by mail, Russell told DeYong that art-supply catalogs were not common in those days. “Even late in life, his idea of how to order was more or less hazy,” DeYong recalled, adding that ordering anything by mail was “a slow, round-about and not always dependable business; one that, in his estimation, would have resulted in more trouble than was worth the effort.” Instead, Russell made do with what he could find, just as he always did, and he never stopped working.
“Let a boy get bucked off, and Charlie would make a picture,” another of Russell’s friends, Jim Thornhill, later recalled to the artist Ross Santee. “Many times I’ve seen Charlie pull the wrapper from a tomato can, take a piece of charcoal from the fire — and sure enough, there would be the boy up at the end of his bridle reins; and I’d swear you’d know the horse. We’d pass it around and have a laugh, then it would be thrown away.” Thornhill was one of many who noticed Russell’s unique ability for close observation, even while at work. “Many’s the time when a steer broke out of the holdup I’ve seen Charlie set his pony, never make a move when he could have a throw. I used to wonder why, but I know now that Charlie was seein’ things we didn’t see, and later he painted them in pictures.”
For his fellow cowpuncher Al Andrews and others, Russell was always the center of attraction. “This was due, no doubt, to his personality, his ability to always tell a good story and his gift for quick sketches and cartoons,” Andrews said. “His habit of drawing on the wagon covers, on poker chips, and on playing cards never failed to arouse the wonder and admiration of the rest of the gang.” Teddy Blue remembered that one cowboy was so impressed he sent some of Russell’s work home to his mother. “Charlie was so well known that we knew where he was all the time and what he was doing,” he claimed.
It was while working on the Judith roundup during this period that Russell unwittingly made a name for himself beyond the ranges where he worked. During the summer of 1885, more than 100,000 head of cattle were brought into the territory, and by the fall ranchers like Granville Stuart were beginning to notice that the ranges were dangerously overcrowded. “A hard winter or dry summer would certainly bring disaster,” Stuart noted — a dire prediction that proved all too true. He noted in his journal that the fall was very dry, and severe winter storms struck in November. “For the first time since I had come to the range, the white Arctic owls came on the range and into the Judith Basin,” he recorded. The Indians pointed to it as a bad sign of much colder weather to come, and what happened in the next few months was remembered by Stuart and the others who lived through it for many years afterward.
On January 9, 1887, a cold northern wind brought a massive and treacherous storm, and it snowed for sixteen hours straight as the temperatures plummeted to minus twenty-two degrees. Over the next few days, the temperature continued to drop until the mercury stood at a bitterly cold forty-six degrees below zero. “It was as though the Arctic regions had pushed down and enveloped us,” Stuart recalled. “Everything was white. Not a point of bare ground was visible in any direction. The storm lasted ten days without abating. The cattle drifted before the storm and fat young steers froze to death along their trails.”
Russell was among the working cowboys who lived through that terrible winter. In the last year of his life, he related his experience for a small circle of friends, and his words were recorded by a stenographer. “In the fall of ’86 there was good grass,” Russell began. “The country was all open — no fences. The horses got through the winter fat. They could paw through the snow.” Like Granville Stuart, Russell remembered the most severe weather occurring after Christmas. “There was two feet on the level. The stage line had to have men stick willows in the snow so they would know where the road was. I was living at the OH ranch that winter. There were several men there, and among them was Jesse Phelps, the owner of the OH. One night Phelps had got a letter from Louie Kaufman, one of the biggest cattle men in the country, who lived in Helena, and Louie wanted to know how the cattle were doing, and Jesse says to me, ‘I must write a letter to Louie and tell him how tough it is.’ I was sitting at the table with him, and I said, ‘I’ll make a sketch to go with it.’ So I made one, a small watercolor about the size of a postal card, and I said to Jesse, ‘Put that in your letter.’ He looked at it and said, ‘Hell, he don’t need no letter; that will be enough.’”
Russell had taken some watercolor materials he had kept in a sock and, picking up the pasteboard cover of a collar box, painted an image of an emaciated steer humped up in a snowstorm with wolves hungrily circling nearby. “The cow in the picture is a Bar R ranch cow — one of Kaufman’s brands,” Russell continued. “On the picture I wrote myself, ‘Waiting for a Chinook,’ and nothing else.” The title referred to the warm winds from the Pacific Coast that occasionally blew over the winter prairies, raising the temperatures as much as thirty to forty degrees in a single hour. But there was no such salvation in the offing — Russell’s title only reflected grim humor.
Russell and others recalled that when Kaufman received the envelope with the watercolor in Helena, he immediately showed it to all his friends and “got drunk on the strength of the bad news.” Granville Stuart was one of many who lost a large percentage of their herds. “In the spring of 1887 the ranges presented a tragic aspect,” he wrote in his later reminiscences. “Along the streams and in the coulees everywhere were strewn the carcasses of dead cattle. Those that were left alive were poor and ragged in appearance, weak and easily mired in mud holes.” After the losses were tallied, Stuart had lost fully sixty-six percent of his herd. Others had lost seventy-five to eighty percent of their cattle. “This was the death knell to the range cattle business on anything like the scale it had been run on before,” Stuart ruefully wrote. The largest outfits were the biggest losers, because they could not adequately shelter their herds. “A business that had been fascinating to me before suddenly became distasteful,” Stuart lamented. “I never wanted to own again an animal that I could not feed and shelter.”
In the meantime, Russell’s modest little watercolor had become famous. Soon after it was shown around Helena, the watercolor was photographed, and copies were sent to all parts of the country. The Montana newspapers finally began to take active notice of the cowboy artist in their midst. “Within twelve months past the fame of an amateur devotee of the brush and pencil has arisen in Montana and, nurtured by true genius within the confines of a cattle ranch, has burst its bounds and spread abroad over the Territory,” reported the Helena Weekly Herald in May 1887. The newspaper, noting the recent notoriety of Waiting for a Chinook, reported that Russell was in Helena, “industriously plying his brush.”
— Excerpted with permission from Charles M. Russell: Watercolors, 1887 – 1926 by Rick Stewart with an essay by Jodie Utter (Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 2015).
Charles M. Russell: Watercolors, 1887 – 1926 is available in both limited and collector’s editions. The limited edition of 500 copies (pictured above) comes in a 12-by-12-inch hardcover format. The collector’s edition of 250 signed and numbered copies is bound in leather, comes in a handmade custom slipcase, and is available exclusively from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
From the April 2016 issue.