Charles M. Russell:
Saga of the West

Frye Art Museum, Seattle
November 21 - January 17

Pablo's Buffalo Hunt (Ca 1909)

Dubbed "America's Cowboy Artist," Charles M. Russell (1864-1926) painted and sculpted images of the western frontier as he witnessed them, documenting and dramatizing a brief period of inexorable change as it was experienced by 'mountain men,' fur traders, cowboys and Native Americans.

Born into a comfortably well-off urban family in Oak Hill, Missouri, Russell never settled into school and preferred only to draw pictures. After a disastrous term at a military academy in New Jersey, he was sent home and his despairing parents acceded to his only other obsession, the West, permitting him (at age 16) to set off on a trip to the Montana Territory. The trip became a lifetime stay.

Charlie Russell's self-taught drafting and painting strengths were sharply honed in the motion studies of roughneck cattlemen, Native Americans in their tribal variations of dress and accoutrement, and wild and domestic animals.

From the very beginning of his late 19th-century ramblings through the mountain states and Alberta, he was acutely aware of the transient quality of colliding cultures and vanishing wildlife, hoping to capture as much as possible like a present-day news photographer. Even though he lauded the adventurous excesses of trailblazing and manly confrontation: shoot-outs, saloon dustups, Indian warriors squaring off and grizzly bears on the attack, he could prognostically see the Wild West coming to an end in his own lifetime &emdash; which it did.

Russell's cummulative pictorial output, it could be theorized, was the first "cowboy movie," and maybe the truest.

© Ted Lindberg