It’s no secret that we here at The Jade Sphinx love the work of Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), the cowboy artist. The boyish Russell went West in his early youth, and 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.
Charlie’s vision of the West was that of a boy, one of endless prairies and freedom. 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.
Charlie spent the rest of his artistic life drawing and painting the West that loomed so large in his personal myth. He often sketched himself in his wryly funny letters, and sometimes showed up in his own paintings. This wonderful gouache picture from 1905 is Russell at his relaxed best. The landscape and figures in the background are effectively accomplished with some broad strokes of color, while Russell reserves the full potency of his representational prowess on himself and his horse. Russell was not an especially effective horseman in real life, and much of his boyhood West was spent sheep-herding. But here is Russell’s youth as he saw it in his mind’s eye, with steely eye looking into the distance, rifle over saddle and ready for whatever was over the next horizon.
Remembrances of boyhood and anticipation of what’s over the next horizon hit somewhat somber notes for your correspondent this July 4th. Russell’s work remains a poignant reminder of what we have lost in our culture, our national spirit, and, more important, in our civil liberties.
Perhaps we should all take a page from Russell’s notebook, and preserve the best parts of ourselves (or, at least, the myth of the best part of ourselves) along with the vision of the Founding Fathers as we move as bravely forward as we can.