Friday, March 30, 2012

Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist

We close the week by returning yet again to the West of myth and of my yearnings and imaginings.  Why does the West of myth call to me so?  One would be hard pressed to find a place perhaps less suited to your garden variety aesthete, a man who prizes his lapis lazuli dressing gown more than any other article of clothing … or is that not quite so?  The West is a place of stunning natural beauty, and the myth of the men and women who made the West the very building blocks of literature and drama.  There is also a sense of freedom in the West, open ranges and the promise of endless opportunity.  Looking at images of the West, I feel young again.  And so, though some of my more waggish readers quip that I might someday need to rename this column The Jade Cactus, we will continue to look at art inspired by this uniquely American period of history.  (Besides, if Oscar Wilde could drink his way through the Old West while lecturing badmen and miners about Benvenuto Cellini, surely I can spend some time there in my imaginings.)

We have spent several columns looking at the work of Charles M. Russell, the famed “cowboy artist” (1864-1926).  Much has been written about Russell, some of it by the artist himself and his wife, Nancy Russell, and his studio assistant, Joe DeYong.  But there really was no full-scale, authoritative biography until Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist by John Taliaferro in 1996.  Taliaferro (born 1952), an independent historian and former senior editor for Newsweek, seems fascinated by classic Americana: another of his biographies is Tarzan Forever, the life of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Taliaferro’s Russell biography is a wonderful achievement: comprehensive, engagingly written, and put together with a deep sympathy for the man himself and his world.  Taliaferro tells us how Charlie, born of well-to-do parents back east, became enthralled with the West and became a cowboy before finding his own artistic voice and spending the rest of his life documenting what he saw with paint and canvas.  Charlie was perhaps his own greatest creation – he may have started out a dude, but he ended up the genuine article.

Much of what we “see” when we think of the West is the result of Russell and his contemporary, painter Frederic Remington (1861-1909).  These two artists, along with real-life scout and showman William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917) created many of the visual cues that we associate with the West, and their vision continues up to today in movies and television.  (Indeed, Russell was a great friend of early screen cowboy William S. Hart, and the painter was often on the set as Hollywood started envisioning the West.)

Taliaferro gives great credit to Nancy Russell for making Charlie a success, and this is, in many ways, a joint biography.  Taliaferro is also a smart and perceptive critic – I have been reading about both Russell and Remington for years, and Taliaferro provides the best summation of the differences between the two men that I have ever read:

…who did he think he was, painting the West in such a savage light?  There lay the grudge, and there lay the difference between the two.  Over and over, Charlie would appropriate Remington’s subject matter and designs down to the most minute cock of a rifle or snort of a pony.  But he always injected a different mood and message.  Remington was in many ways terrified by the West and its boundless physicality.  Indians were depraved fiends; whites were always innocent victims or plucky heroes.  Where Remington’s Blackfeet were thugs dragging home hostages, Charlie’s were a bedraggled but brave family struggling through winter.  Or when Remington painted a circle of horses fighting off wolves with their hooves, he succeeded in conveying only grisly violence; in Charlie’s version, the put-upon horses are making a valiant stand to protect their helpless colts.  To Remington, a rider turning in his saddle to shoot at his pursuers is A Fugitive; to Russell, a man in the same situation is an honest soul fleeing to safety.  Where Remington assigns heartless cunning, Charlie sees a more honorable instinct.  And though Remington had better command of color and was a superior draftsman, in his Western work at least he strove to communicate only militancy, danger and dread.  Charlie’s untrained hand was forever guided by sympathy.

Taliaferro’s book closes sadly (as it must, at this late date) with Charlie’s physical decline and eventual death.  However, Charlie Russell, history’s cowboy artist, was an anomaly among great painters in more ways than one.  On any list of truly great artists, Charlie Russell may have been the one who was, by and large, truly happy.

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