He was born the 3rd of 8 children in St. Louis in 1864. His parents sent him, a bad student, to a New Jersey military school when he was 14. Two years later they agreed to let him go to Montana where he became a ranch hand for 11 years. When he died of congestive heart failure in 1926, he was considered “The Supreme Master of Western Art” according to the 5 Compass museum devoted to him in Great Falls, Montana, the city that became his permanent home from 1896 on. He was Charles Marion Russell.
Russell began sketching cowboys in camp and ranch activities but soon developed great admiration for Native Americans when he spent the summer of 1888 in Canada with the Blood tribe. He began depicting them too and eventually painted more Indians than cowboys.
The C.M. Russell Museum at 400 13th Street North in Great Falls is not just an art museum that is devoted to a hard-working artist who produced 4,000 watercolors, oil paintings, sculptures, etc. Founded in 1953, CMRM owns 954 Russell works, more than any other museum in the world. However, its permanent displays also include an extensive exhibition called “The Bison: American Icon, Heart of Plains Indian Culture”, a Browning firearm collection, Russell’s personally requested horse-drawn hearse, his favorite bar, etc. My favorite display, a collection of Dale Ford’s miniature horse-drawn vehicles, is downstairs and easy to miss. Russell’s house is on the Museum’s grounds next to the log cabin studio built with red cedar telephone poles in 1903 on Lake MacDonald in what is now Glacier National Park. Visitors gain access to both house and studio by buying tickets to the Museum. “George Catlin’s American Buffalo”, 40 original paintings from as artist who greatly influenced Russell, is among the current temporary exhibits. Unfortunately, the show containing these exceptional paintings from the Smithsonian closes on September 14, 2014.
Also a great influence on Russell was his wife Nancy. When they married in 1896, he was 32 and she was 18. She became his career manager and the reason, he fully admitted, for his great success. Neither his drinking buddies nor their adopted son, Jack Cooper Russell, liked her. Charles and Nancy adopted Jack when Charles was 52. After Charles died, Nancy moved to Pasadena, California, and never looked back. She took all of their possessions with her, so what visitors see in their Great Falls house has period but no personal furnishings.
The best story I heard about Russell, and there are many being told, was not at the C.M. Russell Museum. It was in Montana’s State Capitol where his largest painting (26 feet long!) is behind the Speaker’s podium in the House of Representatives. Russell painted a menacing wolf just behind the podium to glare at the Speaker because he didn’t like the man. Nancy insisted that Charles go to the Speaker’s house and apologize. The Speaker hadn’t realized, laughed at the joke, and they became friends.
Russell’s reputation and the value of his art are growing. At a July, 2014, auction billed as the world’s largest Western art sale in Reno, Nevada, 30 of his works sold for millions. A 1924 painting called “Trail of the Iron Horse” sold for $1.9 million.