Sunday, December 4, 2016

Charles M. Russell is probably the best but least-known of the great Western American artists. Completely self-taught, he spent most of his life in Great Falls, Montana (my home town), where he worked in a log cabin studio that once served as his first home in the city. Russell was born in St. Louis in 1864, and at the age of 16 left home for the cowboy life in Montana. He spent the next seven years in the Judith Basin, working as a cowpoke and learning to draw and paint. He spent most of 1888 living with the Piegan Blackfeet, then returned to the cowboy life in the Judith Basin. But Montana was being rapidly settled, and the frontier life which Russell loved so much was ending. In 1892, he gave up roughriding, and moved permanently to Great Falls to become a full-time artist. He died there in 1926.

Russell produced about 4,000 works during his lifetime. Russell was primarily a painter and sketcher who worked in oil, watercolor, pencil, and charcoal. Russell also sculpted in wax, clay, and plaster, and about 150 of these works were cast in bronze. The vast majority of Russell's works are minor efforts: Sketches, drafts, handcrafted dinner menus, postcards, illustrated letters, hand-colored Christmas cards, small keepsakes for friends, and the like. Of his major works, about 90 were held by The Mint and the Silver Dollar Saloon, bars in Great Falls where Russell traded works of art for drinks. These were sold to the Amon Carter Museum in Houston in 1942. Airline executive C.R. Smith and oil company executive Charles S. Jones collected about 45 bronzes each. Smith's bronzes eventually went to the Amon Carter Museum, while Jones' went to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma. Thomas Gilcrease owned 46 paintings and 27 bronzes, which went to the Gilcrease Museum in Oklahoma. About 60 works, mostly paintings, watercolors, drawings, and ephemera (as well as a few bronzes) are owned by the Montana Historical Society in Helena, Montana. Cleveland banker and sports team owner George Gund purchased 16 works, which were permanently loaned to the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis. Slightly more than 150 oil paintings, watercolors, illustrated letters, postcards, and ephemera -- most of which did not depict Old West images -- were retained by Russell's close friend, Josephine Trigg, and form the core of the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls.

A large number of Russell's works, however, remain in private hands and circulate fairly freely.

Thirty Russell works were sold in July 2014 in one of the largest Russell auctions held in decades.

Trail of the Iron Horse sold for $1.9 million. This 17.5 by 27.5-inch watercolor on paper depicts a group of Native Americans on horseback contemplating railroad tracks.

Dakota Chief sold for $1.1 million. This 12 by 18-inch oil on board depicts a young Lakota chieftain on horseback.

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