Charles M. Russell is often grouped with Charles Schreyvogel and Frederic Remington as one of the greatest artists of the American West. However, Russell, like so many of the characters whom he painted, was an artist who learned about the West from the inside out, living the life he depicted. Indeed, Russell mourned the end of the wilderness and its wanton destruction of animal life. Nancy Russell later wrote of her husband, “Charley was here to see the change. He did not like the new, so he started to record the old in ink, paint, and clay. He liked the old ways best. He was a child of the West before wire or rail spanned it; now, civilization choked him.”
Born in Missouri 1864, an event recognized a century later by a commemorative U.S. postage stamp, Russell journeyed to Montana in 1880. Soon after, he met a trapper and mountain man and spent time with him on the upper South Fork of the Judith River. In 1882, Russell began his career as a cowboy. At the same time, Russell honed his abilities as an artist, making sketches, small sculptures and larger paints of the events and people he witnessed, and he soon developed a reputation as a master storyteller. In 1888, Russell rode into Canada and spent a period of time living with the Blood Indians, a branch of the Blackfoot tribe. From this experience he developed a broad knowledge of the Indian way of life, as well as a profound sense of respect for it.
Those years were very important for Russell’s art. His firsthand experiences and his intimate knowledge of the cowboy were to produce the distinctive realism that is characteristic of his style. He portrayed actual events and people in his paintings; many of the legends and stories of the West that he used in his works were originally heard during his years as a cowboy. Russell was also a fervent admirer of the American Indian, often portraying them as heroic figures struggling to preserve their way of life.
In 1896, Russell married Nancy Cooper, a strong willed woman who encouraged her husband to write short stories. She became his business manager, marketing his work throughout the United States and Canada. By 1915, he was a complete success, getting large prices for his paintings and selling all that he could produce. Although Russell had to struggle to gain recognition, once he achieved it, he enjoyed the rewards of a long and fruitful career. Success, however, did not change his character or charm. He was still the friendly cowboy and he could not understand why people paid so much money for his work.
In 1920, Russell’s health began to weaken. He and Nancy began spending winters in California to avoid the rigors of the Montana climate. After several years of poor health, Russell died of a heart attack on October 24, 1926, at the age of 62.
Reference: The American West: Legendary Artists of the Frontier, edited by Dr. Rick Stewart, AskArt.com