Over his more than 40-year career, Charlie Russell chronicled his beloved West through the stories he told across paper, canvas, bronze, and truly any material he could find.
A new exhibition, Charles M. Russell: Storyteller Across Media, at the Sid Richardson Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, invites visitors to examine Russell’s work in sculpture and painting through the lens of the master narrator. Over his more than 40-year career, Russell chronicled his beloved West across paper, canvas, bronze, and truly anything he could find to make art out of. Russell adapted stories he heard from early pioneers in Montana, his cowboy cohorts, and the many Indigenous acquaintances he made over a lifetime spent in the West. He then turned those narratives into a compelling visual document of the passing of the Old West.
From his early days telling stories around the campfire as a night herder, to spinning yarns for guests on pack rides through national parks, both orally and visually Russell was a colorful raconteur. His humor was drawn from his own life experiences, and from stories that he learned from others. His self-portrait, Charlie Himself, exudes Russell’s personality and presence. His signature Métis Sash, the rings on his fingers, his casually held cigarette, direct stance, and gaze feel as if we have caught Russell at a temporary pause while recounting a story. While we cannot experience Russell’s storytelling firsthand today, his narratives live on in the more than 4,000 artworks he created in his lifetime.
Some of the objects in the exhibition can be traced to the time Russell spent among the Blood Indians (the Kainai), a branch of the Blackfoot (the Niitsitapi) Confederacy on their reservation near Calgary in the summer of 1888. In a letter on loan in the exhibit, Russell recounts the genesis of a series of works to his patron George W. Kerr, who had purchased the oil painting Counting Coup. It was also from this summer spent in Canada that Russell claimed he was given the name Ah-wa-cous, or antelope, by the Blood Indians.
Though Russell was one of the most successful artists in the 1920s — thanks in no small part to the efforts of his wife and manager, Nancy Russell — he humbly valued his friendships above all else. His infectious humor, gift of narrative, and illustrated “paper talk” letters show a very personal side of the artist. While Russell made art that was for sale, he also made many works that were intended for close friends, as well as thank-you notes for both gifts and hospitality received on travels. Russell had a wide array of people he called friends, including cowboys, artists, collectors, politicians, and late in his life, movie stars. A group of works made specifically as part of his friendship with certain individuals is featured in the exhibit.
Russell was a self-taught artist, and the exhibit takes advantage of showing the progression of his artistic abilities over time. Three roping scenes that range from 1883 to 1899 reveal a subject Russell returned to again and again and demonstrate how over time he mastered the art of visualizing a good story, walking the viewer through events as they unfold across the canvas. Other early works show how the artist structured compositions utilizing fallen and broken logs to direct the eye across the canvas.
A highlight of the exhibit is a selection of watercolors that span from Russell’s early years making art on the plains of Montana to the last years of his life. Russell’s mastery in the watercolor medium can be seen in late examples where shimmering colors are applied using both deliberate and accidental effects. Russell’s work in three dimensions is also on view in both his well-known subjects cast in bronze and his more-intimate works created from wax and other natural materials.
Other highlights of the more than 30 artworks on view include a small sketchbook and sketch box — both on loan from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
Charles M. Russell: Storyteller Across Media is on view at the Sid Richardson Museum through April 2024. The museum is located in the historic Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth just steps away from the plaza; admission is always free.