Here is a wonderful action painting by our friend, Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), the Cowboy Artist. Charlie is a good saddle pal to us here at The Jade Sphinx, and Your Correspondent has been trying to get a sense of the man and his philosophy through his pictures.
We can start with the obvious: the title of this work, Loops and Swift Horses are Surer Than Lead. In the survey of Western Art we have done here over the years, we have had occasion to look at several pictures that include bears in an attitude of menace. In fact, after Native Americans, bandits and over-zealous lawmen, perhaps the bear is the most frequently represented foeman in Western Art.
However, most any of Charlie’s contemporaries would take the obvious route, and paint a picture of Western figures shooting and killing the bear. (Or, reaching for their rifles to do so, or putting them down after they have done so.) Not Charlie. His cowboy heroes, though obviously well-armed, rope and scare the bear away to safer climes. Always more Roy Rogers than Clint Eastwood, Charlie didn’t see the West as a vast panorama of hardship and cruelty, but, rather, a boyish paradise of freedom and fun.
This is where Charlie differs most significantly from the artist frequently associated with him, Frederic Remington (1861-1909). For Remington, the West was unending hardship, merciless desert and physical exertion, a battle for survival to be won or lost. It is Remington, of course, who created in his work the now-familiar Western trope of the bleached steer skull that can still be seen in countless depictions of the West. Make a wrong move, Remington implied, and you’ll end up the same.
If this picture is any indication, perhaps Charlie’s vision was the truer one. Loops and Swift Horses now hangs in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and is based on a true-life incident. This painting came about by way of his friends, the Coburn brothers of the famous Circle C Ranch in eastern Montana, where they described the roping of a giant brown bear. Artistic license was taken when Charlie turned the bruin into a Grizzly, but the rest of the story was true right down to the landscape in the background: the scenic Coburn Buttes.
The dominant color of the picture is blue, but Charlie manages to mute or pop shades of it to represent everything from trees to sky to mountains, to foreground scrub. Yes, the color never becomes monotonous or gimmicky.
Charlie was also the master of figures in motion. His horses move. Many of our greatest artists have been able to depict horses of majesty, of size, of monumentality, but Charlie’s horses are seen in dramatic action, twisting or jumping with a febrile life of their own. I can think of no finer painter of American horses than Charlie Russell
Finally, Charlie underscores the tumultuous action of the picture with a rainstorm in the middle-distant horizon. Like all Western landscape pictures, the view-horizon is vast, going on for miles. Thus the far-off rain storm underscores the ‘storm’ of action going on between cowboys, horses and bear.
Speaking of movement, take a moment to look at the bear. It twists and pivots on unsteady ground … you can almost feel the weight of the animal as it is pulled and slides down the natural incline. The cowboys, too, move as if in motion, alternately pulling or swinging their lariats. And notice the cowboy on the right, looking over his right shoulder, with right leg raised as counter weight to keep in saddle.
This is a really good picture, and something mysteriously akin to the essence of Charlie – not only is his West a world of action, freedom and camaraderie, but it can be a fairly bloodless one, too. Charlie loved the animals he found out West (when visiting cities, he always went to the local zoo, where he said he felt most at home), and it’s not surprising that he would depict his heroes scaring away the threat of a grizzly, rather than killing it.
Perhaps we should all take a page from Russell’s notebook, and produce work that preserves the best parts of ourselves (or, at least, the myth of the best part of ourselves). The more I look at Charlie’s work, the more convinced I become that we need more artists like him now.