Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas at the Line Camp by Charles Russell

I had so much fun thinking about Dan Muller and Buffalo Bill Cody at Christmas yesterday that I decided to venture West again for today’s post. 

We have written about self-proclaimed ‘cowboy artist’ Charles Russell (1864-1926) before.  Reading his letters and diary snippets, it is amazing to find how wonderfully boyish and enthusiastic Russell was in person.  Russell never fully grew-up and he often approached his life, like his art, with a child-like sense of wonder.

So it comes as no surprise that Russell loved the Christmas season.  He would often retreat into his studio weeks before the holiday, designing his Christmas card(s), writing letters to close friends and oft-times painting a holiday-themed picture.  One Christmas painting showcases Russell’s most whimsical side: a cowpuncher riding a storm at night and seeing, faint in the distance, Santa Claus and his sleigh.

The picture we are looking at today is Christmas at the Line Camp, painted in watercolor in 1904, and currently in the Amon Carter Museum in Forth Worth, Texas. 

Line Camp is painted with a true minimalist’s touch.  The dominant color is white, of course, but Russell’s mastery of composition and gesture underscore the joviality of the scene.  While white often is the color most associated with death or emptiness, here Russell manages to imbue a mostly white composition with warmth, friendliness and high cowboy spirits.  (And more than a touch of puckish humor – the horns mounted over the front door are located directly over the head of one of the figures – perhaps the first time someone was captured in a picture with ‘horns.’)

Winter was a particularly treacherous season for the cowboy.  The work remained hard, and was often made more difficult by dangerous weather conditions.  Not as many men were needed during the winter months, and it was not uncommon for a pair of saddlehands to hole up in a cabin on the outskirts of the range, overlooking cattle.  These hands were equipped with winter horses that could support a rider and, if necessary, a weakened or frozen calf. 

In this painting, two riders from the home ranch have ridden through the rough Christmas weather to greet the two cowboys stationed in the cabin.  They bring the makings of a festive holiday meal, a freshly killed pronghorn, along with high spirits.  The two saddlehands in the cabin emerge, one with hands in his pockets, the other slightly hunched.  Part of Russell’s genius is demonstrated in these poses – the two figures are clearly ‘awakening’ by their pose and gestures, while the raised hat and highly held reins of the other figures connote energy, life and good humor.

A veteran cowboy himself, Russell pays close attention to the details.  The lead rider wears a coat of canvas lined with wool fleece (standard issue in the winter for westerners) and heavy chaps to keep out the cold.  The outer walls of the cabin are lined with wolf skins, probably taken from wolves threatening the heard, to help insulate them from the cold.  (And look at stream coming from the nostrils of the horses – it is clearly very, very cold outside.)

Russell keeps his sky neutral, maintaining focus on his people and their surroundings.  Bits of dead scrub emerge from the frozen earth, but the men are very much alive and very much attuned to holiday jollity.

Russell and his wife spent most of their winters in California starting in the 1920s, but the Christmas winter scenes of the American West were a potent part of his memory.  On a Christmas card written weeks before his death, Charlie wrote, "Heres hoping the worst end of your trail is behind you / That Dad Time be your friend from here to the end/And sickness nor sorrow dont find you."

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