The Old West lives on through the paintings, illustrations and sculptures of legendary artist Charlie Russell.
Written by John Mariani, January 1951
Charlie Russell’s ability as an artist, as with any artist, is largely a matter of opinion. He was a draughtsman, unsurpassed. A glance at any of his work will convince even the most skeptical of this. He knew his color and used it in his paintings with a lavish hand. And he had an artistic integrity which displayed itself in the minute attention to the correctness of detail which he loved to paint. Saddles, spurs, ropes, chaps, bits, in fact all the gear of the cowboy, is perfect in its delineation. In his Indian pictures there is that same meticulous correctness of detail and authenticity. Yet these qualities alone cannot explain the greatness and genius of Russell.
Russell painted because he could not help painting. It was as much a part of the necessity of living to him as breathing. It was often said of Charlie that had he lost both hands he would still have found a way of expressing himself in painting and drawing. And there, possibly, lies the answer to the secret of a great artist.
In almost all of his works, Charlie Russell was living, deep within himself, the old, wild, free days of the open range, the cowboy and the Indian. In fact, the most amazingly progressive decades in the world’s history left little impression on him. He accepted the airplane, the auto mobile (white man’s stink wagon), the strides of science as rather inconsequential, and when he did think of them, he usually classed them in the same category as barbed wire or farming, both of which helped spell the doom of the life he loved. But to him that life never ended. His paintings, his pen and ink sketches, his bronzes, are all as fresh and vivid as if he had done each the moment he stepped off his horse on roundup or had just come from an Indian camp. And so, with all of this vibrant, pulsing, real life within him and no way to re-live it, he painted and modeled, never realizing the greatness of his creations.
Friends of Russell were always amazed at his modesty. In the presence of his paintings he acted a little embarrassed. He liked to get rid of them and not see them about, for he often said that in his mind he painted many great pictures but once they were on canvas they were never the same to him; they were disappointing.