Prior to 1895, the year of his marriage, most of his work had been done for his friends, free, or at the rate of 10 or $15 a picture. Often he traded a watercolor or oil for groceries or a treat for his friends. With his painful modesty, he did not appreciate the tremendous value of his work and so was a very poor salesman for it. In one of his letters he tells a story which expressed his modesty. He said:
“A feller wanted me to paint a couple of water colors for him. WhenI finished ‘em, I went to his room and says: ‘Well, here’s your pictures.’ ‘Fine,’ he says, ‘How much are they?’ ‘Twenty,’ I says. ‘Apiece?’ Right quick I answer, ‘Yep, twenty apiece.’ Gee whiz, I sure was surprised when he handed me the forty.” This $40 for two water colors that today could not be purchased for a thousand dollars “apiece!”
Charlie could never understand why anybody would part with thousands of dollars of good money to buy something that he just couldn’t help creating. But the reason for this value of his work is understandable. In the first place, hundreds of volumes, history, poetry, fiction, have been written about the West, hundreds more will probably be written, but read them as you will, the real history is not to be found in the printed word but in the pictures of Charlie Russell. He told the truth in all his paintings. He believed that a picture should tell a story and every picture he painted was so conceived. When art critics quarrel with this theory from an artistic standpoint, it makes little difference, for even they are forced to admit that great historical value lies in that and that alone. Each of Russell’s conceptions is a phase of the old life, with its drama, its pathos, its humor, its everyday life.
There is drama and action in all his work. For example, the bronze, “When the Best of Riders Quit,” is full of it; so are all his pictures of bucking horses. It would be difficult to find a painting of Russell’s that was not full of action. “Jerked Down,” “Wild Horse Hunters,” any number are good samples. And yet aside from the big, dramatic action of horses and cattle in motion, Russell had the knack of imparting action in the tilt of a horse’s ear, the toss of a head, the swish of a tail.
The pathos was usually reserved for his Indians. Russell was second to none as an authority on the Northwest Plains Indians; he knew them and loved them. He felt, and rightly so, that the Indian had been treated badly by the white man, and unlike Frederick Remington, who saw and painted the Indian from a soldier’s viewpoint (as enemies of the white man to be fought and subjugated), Russell saw the misunderstanding between two races of people. As a matter of fact, as he came to know the Indian more and more, he came to the conclusion that in many respects the Indian had a much sounder philosophy than the white man. Probably no other Western painter has ever depicted the Indian in a kindlier and more understanding light.
But Charles Russell as a historian was an unconscious historian. He did not tell a story in each picture simply because that is the way history is best told; but because the story is there as a part of the conception of the strong dramatic soul of the Old West, which in its elements was typical of all that is best in the spirit of this country.
Aside from the unquestionable historical value of Russell’s paintings, there is another and probably much more important one, and that is the fact that they are good purely from an artistic standpoint. At a time when American artists were rushing off to Europe to study and imitate the “culture” of the Old World, Russell was interpreting the pulsing life of the new, the frontier of our American West. And if the culture of that era is questionable, then certainly he dealt with the things that culture is made of. So he preceded by some 25 years the regional paintings of such American greats as John Sloan, John Stuart Curry, Grant Wood, Thomas Benton and a host of others. His ‘‘I’m just an illustrator” has been refuted many times by any number of art historians and museums. Today Russell’s paintings hang in such museums as the Metropolitan in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the London museum and the Louvre in Paris. At the present time, agents are still constantly on the lookout for original Russells to enhance both private and museum collections.
It is doubtful if even a small sketch of Russell’s could be found for anything under a thousand dollars. An original oil dated past 1910 would unquestionably be a bargain at anywhere from $20,000 on up. Even these are not to be had. Not long ago the Montana State Legislature passed a law forbidding the out-of-state sale of Russell’s remaining work in Montana.
Russell’s greatness has been well established in the countless honors bestowed on him and his work in his own lifetime. Since his death his ability as an artist has grown even greater. I have yet to meet a real horseman, cowboy or cattleman who was not deeply appreciative of anything he had seen of Russell’s. And of all the contemporary Western artists, there are many, I know of none who can come close to approaching the standards and achievements of Russell as a painter, illustrator or sculptor.
To me, Russell’s works have everything. He was a superb draughtsman, a master of color and composition, but best of all; he was an artist who had something to say and said it in a way that may possibly be gone forever. There was only one Charlie Russell, and though his imitators are numerous, they all too often suffer badly by comparison. Some day, perhaps, the West may again produce an artist of Russell’s stature, but never again can there be one who will depict that time in our history that was his and his alone.
The West of the Indian and of the early days of the open range was gone almost in his time. It would be difficult to imagine an artist who had known it second hand, so to speak, to do it the justice that Russell, who had lived it and loved it, imparted in all his work. His feelings for that West are best described in his own words:
“The West is dead! You may lose a sweetheart, but you won’t forget her.”*
Charlie Russell left a rich and colorful history of the early West that cannot be measured in dollars and cents. But more than that, his paintings are a wonderful contribution to the heritage and the art of our whole country.
*GOOD MEDICINE–The illustrated letters of Charles M. Russell, Dedication. Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc. 1930
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