On first consideration, Charles M. Russell might seem the most masculine — even macho — of Western artists, but women figured greatly in his life and his art.
A firsthand chronicler of the Wild West, Charles M. Russell painted and sculpted a rugged life that seemed solely the province of men: bison hunts and war parties, buckaroos and bucking broncs, bloody battles and rowdy brawls, dusty cattle drives and solitary campfires.
In fact, women figured greatly in his life and his art.
Charles M. Russell: The Women in His Life & Art examines the Cowboy Artist in the context of the women who encouraged his creativity and helped shape him and his career — from his mother and paternal grandmother to his wife, close friends, and professional colleagues. Featuring 60 works in oil, watercolor, pen and ink, and bronze, and several additional works by notable artists who influenced his depictions of women, the exhibition spans the length of his career, from 1890 to 1926.
C&I spoke with co-curators Joan Carpenter Troccoli, curator emeritus at the Denver Art Museum, and Emily Crawford Wilson, curator of the C.M. Russell Museum, about the women who functioned as muses, models, tastemakers, and partners and influenced Russell’s artistic vision of the West.
Cowboys & Indians: Do you have a favorite story about how Charlie Russell and some of his specific works were influenced by his wife, mother, or paternal grandmother?
Emily Crawford Wilson: Russell family matriarch Lucy Bent ran the family plantation, Oak Hill, and grew the family’s brick and mining business after her husband James’ death in 1850 and until her own in 1871. As a young boy, Russell had the opportunity to listen to his grandmother’s stories of the frontier West. Grandmother Russell told family stories of her famous brothers — Charles and William, who founded the historic trading post Bent’s Fort and opened the Santa Fe Trail — bringing to life for young Charlie the excitement of the fur trade and the Western Territories.
C&I: His grandmother really seems to have been an outsize influence.
Joan Carpenter Troccoli: Lucy Bent Russell’s father, Silas Bent Jr., moved his young family (including 1-year-old Lucy) to St. Louis in 1806, at about the time that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned to the city after their two-year expedition up the Missouri River and across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. Silas Bent, a U.S. government official, came to St. Louis (then a small town only recently acquired by the United States) to supervise the survey of the Louisiana Purchase. In his professional capacity he would have had a great deal of contact with Lewis and Clark, whose map of their explorations was a key document for his work. Lewis died in 1809, when Lucy was 4, but Clark, who held a series of government positions in St. Louis, lived on until 1838. Lucy undoubtedly knew Clark and probably shared stories originating with him with her grandson.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition became a major subject for Russell, and we have three works treating the theme in the exhibition: the painting Lewis and Clark Reach Shoshone Camp Led by Sacajawea, the “Bird Woman” (1918); Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea (1917), a design for a public sculpture; and York (1908), one of Russell’s most important watercolors. All of these works include the young Shoshone woman Sacajawea, who accompanied the explorers from her village on the Upper Missouri to the Pacific and back. Sacajawea gave birth to a son during the winter the expedition spent near her village; he is invariably shown by Russell and other artists in a cradleboard on her back. William Clark [took in] this young boy and arranged for his education, so there is a chance that Lucy may have known him as well.
C&I: How about some back stories of specific paintings?
Wilson: As I Was and As I Am Now (1896) are a pair of ink-on-paper sketches completed the year of Russell’s marriage. They’re a commentary on how much his life has changed in such a short period of time and functional thank-you cards for the tea set depicted, which was a wedding present from friends. From what Russell shows us, the refining properties of marriage have necessitated an uptick in his standard of living and provided him with companionship that he was previously lacking.
Another good example is the painting Keeoma, an oil on canvas, from 1898. Between 1896 and 1899, Russell painted five images of reclining Indian maidens referred to as the “Keeoma” series. In each, Russell pairs the exoticism of Native women with Orientalist motifs that emphasized lounging women, bright colors, and rich interiors popular with artists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is likely that [wife] Nancy was herself one of the models for Keeoma, as black-and-white photographs of her dressed in Native costume and in Arabian-inspired attire attest.
Nancy once wrote in a 1924 letter to Ralph Budd, then president of the Great Northern Railway, that Russell “cannot draw a pretty girl or people in up-to-date clothing. But he does know and feel the romance of the West of yesterday and know its people as well as its animals, their lives and the magic that held them here.” This anecdotal comment by Nancy reinforces what we know to be Russell’s interest in perpetuating a romanticized vision of the American West, which we can see clearly in his myriad depictions of Plains Indian women moving through the landscape.
C&I: He illustrated the book Hope Hathaway: A Story of Western Ranch Life by Frances Parker; there’s a first edition from 1904 in the exhibition. What can you tell us about that?
Wilson: In 1891, Frances Parker moved to Montana at 16 to live with her uncle in Wolf Point. Soon after, she met and married C.M. Jacobs, the foreman at the N Bar N cattle ranch, where she likely met Russell when he was working as a night herder nearby. Parker asked Russell to illustrate her second novel, Hope Hathaway, an adventure and romance novel that centers on a ranch girl and teacher who helps to foil the attempts of cattle rustlers to push a sheep rancher off his land. Russell’s illustrations for the novel are some of his strongest depictions of a female protagonist due to the fidelity with which he captured the spirit, independence, and empowerment embraced by the new modern woman of the 20th century.
C&I: How about Russell in his personal life — in love or in friendship with women?
Troccoli: There are three paintings in the exhibition depicting Laura (Lollie) Edgar, who was Russell’s first serious love interest: Lollie (ca. 1892); Girl in Pink (Lollie) (1890); and The Capture of Laura Edgar (1894), a fantasy image that depicts Lollie being kidnapped by Indians. Like Charlie, Lollie Edgar was a member of a prosperous family that enjoyed a prominent place in St. Louis society; her relationship with Charlie began in the early 1880s, when her father bought a sheep ranch in Montana. Lollie’s parents discouraged the romance, and it ended after her father moved his family back to St. Louis in 1884 and sold the ranch. Lollie married another young man in 1890. Russell still spoke affectionately of Lollie decades later, and, as the pictures in the exhibition demonstrate, he continued to paint her well after their relationship came to an end.
We also include several pictures of Josephine Trigg, whose family lived [on the same block as] the Russells in Great Falls. (Her father, Albert, owned the Brunswick saloon.) Josephine, a children’s librarian, shared Russell’s love of literature and storytelling, and she often read to him while he was painting in his studio. She and her parents also counseled Nancy Cooper Russell, who came from an impoverished rural family, to improve her grammar and etiquette. Josephine, like Nancy, served as a model for Charlie. Though Charlie did not meet her until much later, she appears as the rider in red in the foreground of his 1908 Going to a Christmas Ranch Party in the 1880s and may also have served as the model for the Gibson Girl-like bicyclist in The Last of His Race (1899).
From the August/September 2018 issue. Photography: Waterhole, 1906, oil on panel. 11.5 × 18.5 inches. Petrie Collection, Denver, Colorado. Going to a Christmas Ranch Party in the 1880s, 1908, watercolor and gouache on paper. 6 × 9.5 inches. C. M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, Montana, Gift of the Josephine Trigg Estate (953-1-0014). The Capture of Laura Edgar, 1894, oil on canvas. 23.25 × 35.375 inches. Petrie Collection, Denver, Colorado. Charles M. Russell: The Women in His Life & Art is on view through September 30 at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, and November 20, 2018 – April 14, 2019, at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West in Scottsdale, Arizona.