- Charles Marion Russell, American, 1864-1926
- Born: Missouri
- Work Locations: Western U.S.
- United States
About the Artist
Growing up in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, Charles M. Russell was a restless kid and an unimpressive student. He later said the only reason he learned to read was to devour novels about Buffalo Bill Cody, a colorful figure from the American Old West. Hoping that a good dose of hardworking reality in the untamed West would cure him of his romantic fantasies, Russell’s parents finally let him move to Montana at age 16—where rather than being cured, his passion grew. There he worked first as a sheepherder, followed by 11 years as a night-wrangler of horses (a job that gave him plenty of time to sketch during the day).
Beginning in 1893, Russell devoted more time to art and, after marrying three years later, became much more disciplined. His wife Nancy pried him away from his drinking buddies, encouraged him to paint, and ambitiously marketed his work. Russell was essentially selftaught, having participated in only a few sessions with professional illustrators. His skill and vision developed throughout his life as he looked at other artists’ work and, when visiting New York to promote sales, discussed technique with artists he met. If he was struggling with a painting, Russell would put down his palette and go outside to twirl his lasso.
What Inspired It
Russell tried to keep himself separate from modernization as it crept into Montana, and he lamented the loss of the heroic Old West. His primary interest in art was the celebration of what he called “The West That Has Passed.” The scene in this painting is imaginary, inspired by a nostalgic vision set well before Russell’s time. To make the image look and feel real, Russell relied on his personal experience and observations from his early years in Montana. He also made annual trips to Indian reservations in Montana to brush up on his techniques and refresh his imagery.
Russell’s paintings often bear evidence of a story—hints about what might have happened before or what might follow. When this painting was first exhibited, it was described as a group of Kootenai Indians crossing into another tribe’s territory to hunt buffalo. Because they have entered a hostile area, the Kootenai must travel carefully to avoid conflict. The men walk beside their horses and place buffalo hides, fur side up, on the horses’ backs. When viewed from a distance, the group looks like a small band of buffalo, which kept them from being bothered.
The central figure is bestowed with greater detail, more intense color, and even a halo effect formed by the cloud behind his head.
The clouds in this painting echo the figures. They are brightest and most defined over the men in the lead, and they thin out as they trail off to the right, just like the figures do. This creates a sense of harmony and reinforces the hierarchy within the group.
Look at the figures near the back of the line—the further away they are, the more they look like buffalo.
Russell painted a variety of prairie grass clumps, scrubby brush, and exposed earth with clods of dirt and stones. When you stand about ten feet away from the painting, the vegetation looks incredibly descriptive. But when you move closer it seems to dissolve into wild brushstrokes. Giving the foreground special attention is a technique Russell developed to keep the entire surface of his paintings interesting.
Interesting colors emerge in shadows as a result of reflected light. Notice how the horse’s ankles are green, and the face and neck of the horse on the left have blue spots.
The green vegetation suggests that it’s spring or early summer on the plains. Buffalo will be fat so it’s worth the risk to cross into another tribe’s territory to hunt.
For Russell, the disappearance of the buffalo epitomized the “West That Has Passed.” He may have identified with the buffalo that way—a tiny buffalo skull became a trademark he used with his signature, perhaps because he began to see himself as a relic of the Old West.