Friday, December 20, 2013

Who Is Your Santa, Part IV: The Santa Claus of Charles Marion Russell

Well, of course we here at The Jade Cactus The Jade Sphinx could not let the Christmas season pass without a nod from our favorite cowboy artist.

We have written about self-proclaimed ‘cowboy artist’ Charles Russell (1864-1926) before.  Last year were read his letters and diary snippets, and was delighted 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. 

This holiday 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.

For true Santaologists like your correspondent, perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Big Red (as we call him in our household) is just how fleeting and ephemeral a figure he can be.  As we have seen from the different interpretations of Santa Claus, the great man is a great many things to a great number of people.  It is this elusive quality of Santa – this inability to pin him down and fully get a view of him, that keep him so mysterious, so compelling and so powerful a figure.

Charlie plays with this idea in his 1918 painting.  Santa can be seen – just – in the snowy distance.  Maybe.  Even our cowboy hero in the foreground, startled by this visitation of the fantastic on the cold plains, is uncertain of what he sees.

As with all things Russell, the composition, coloration and emotional impact of the picture are stunning.  Even with a holiday jape, he is nothing short of masterful.

And, the psychology is just correct – Santa is always best seen in the distance.  Tantalizing enough to be almost there, but never enough to be captured, measured and diminished by our science.

And that, more than anything else, is the mystery and magic of Santa Claus.

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