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 not only loved life, he loved his life. He wanted to be a cowboy in his earliest boyhood, and went West as soon a he had the chance.
Charlie’s vision of the West was a boyish one, full 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.
The sense of loss, though, was not a bitter nor astringent one. In fact, it grew into some of a sweet wistfulness. Charlie was too happy a man – too content with life and his place in it – to allow loss to play to great a part. It’s a lesson we can all take from this maddeningly simple yet complex man. The more I read about Charlie, the more I think I know him, the more I feel some vital core essence of the man is slipping through my fingers.
This week, we will look at three of Charlie’s pictures. (I only think of him as “Charlie,” it’s almost impossible to think of him under his full moniker.) They are not necessarily his best (nor most representative pictures), but they illustrate something of his philosophy, I think.
Exhibit A: Laugh Kills Lonesome, painted in 1925 and now in the Mackay Collection in Helena, Montana. It was painted just a year before Charlie went to the Last Roundup, and if ever an artist painted an end-of-life farewell, it is this.
Charlie paints the figures in a markedly sketchy manner: it’s not verisimilitude he is after, but mood. The sky and surrounding landscape are simply laid out in muted, cool colors. The moon shines brilliantly in the distance, and the stars seem almost heavenly, but they do no wash the picture with cool light – they are distant and fairly unobtainable.
The realm warmth of the picture comes from the campfire, which brings a warm glow to the chuck wagon, a few simple tools, and the cowboys themselves. There is nothing of particularly high mark in their attitudes or actions; it is simply a group of men content after a hard life of labor, loving the outdoors, their lives, and one another. One of them smokes a contemplative cigarette, another pours the last of the coffee, and two of them share a game of cards.
But the arresting figure is the man standing on the right, hat back, coat open, body receptive to capture the campfire’s warmth. Who is it but our old friend, Charlie Russell, the Cowboy Artist. We have seen in the past that Charlie was not averse to putting himself into his own work, and there he is, holding his lariat, smoking a cigarette, and perhaps looking at the fire die down as his own life draws to a close.
Charlie was in ill health for the final years of his life, and he is evidently looking at his own past in this painting. But it is not a look of regret or of loss; if anything, it’s a look of satisfaction.
Perhaps the truest nugget of the real Charlie Russell can be found in the picture’s title: Laugh Kills Lonesome.
There, in a nutshell, is the essence of Charlie Russell.