Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Charlie Russell: Cowboy Artist

A Russell self-portrait from one
of his many letters

I have recently been reading with great satisfaction the letters of Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), the cowboy artist.  This book, Paper Talk: Charlie Russell’s American West from 1979, is now sadly out of print.  However, a quick browse on Alibris, EBay or any used book site can deliver affordable copies.  The letters are edited by Brian W. Dippie, and they are fascinating and the art beguiling. 

Paging through his notes, it’s impossible not to like Charlie.  The word that would best describe him is … boyish.

As a boy, Charlie (it’s impossible not to call him Charlie, even Dippie does so), wanted to go West.  He did at 16 and, from then until his 30s, Charlie worked as a cowboy, watching the waning days of the American West with an artist’s eye.  He didn’t seem to be very effective in the saddle, but it was all he wanted and he was happy.

But Charlie was more than a cowboy; he was also a painter and romantic.  Once married and settled down, he spent the rest of his life memorializing what he saw in the West as a vanished time.  Like showman Buffalo Bill Cody before him, Charlie realized the colorful pageant of his life and time.  Perhaps what I like the most about him is his vision of the West. 

These letters are filled with stories of his days in the West, and illustrated with his own pen and ink drawings.  (Imagine receiving such a gem!)  Charlie was not a born writer, but he was a born observer and artist.  Along with Frederick Remington, Charlie Russell defined the vision we see in our mind’s eye when we think of the American West.  His pen line was strong and sure and his sense of color remarkable.  Both Remington and Russell are American masters, but I much prefer the inherent kindness found in Russell’s work.

Charlie’s West is not the West of hangings and gunmen and mud and misery.  Charlie was a boy, first and foremost, and his vision of the West is that of a boy.  Charlie’s West is endless prairies and freedom.  It’s sitting under a tree and jawing with a fellow cowboy.  It’s admiring the Indians, and dreaming of being one himself.  (Though Charlie spent a year with the Indians, the real hardships of their lives didn’t seem to register with him.  For Charlie, American Indians represented a dream of freedom and open plains and boyish thoughts of how colorful and cool they were.)  Charlie’s letters are decorated with drawings of campfires and sunshine and wide vistas and male camaraderie.  He loved the horses, the cows and the buffalo, and felt connected to the wildlife of the West.  (In large cities, he visited zoos to feel more at home.)  His ideas of the West are to us more Gene Autry and Roy Rogers than Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone.  His was an eternal boyhood – both promise and nostalgia at the same time.  The West (and his boyhood) became to him a Lost Eden which he missed and to which he could never return.

Like many men who don’t grow up, he remained a boy a very long time indeed, and then spent the rest of his life thinking about it.  Charlie felt a strong, almost brotherly connection to anyone who felt the same way about the West.  His affection for this lost time and place led to its share of eccentricities (he wore a cowboy hat, sash and scarf until the end of his life) but it was the wellspring of his art.  He was what he thought himself … a cowboy artist.

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