We finish our brief look into the internal workings of the mind of Charlie Russell, Cowboy Artist Extraordinaire, with this witty and wonderful picture, Waiting and Mad (1899).
People who have known Your Correspondent for some time have surely heard me say, “I’ve been married for 26 years and I’ve spent 23 of them waiting.” As someone who regularly waits by the door, waits by the shower and waits in the car while my Much Better Half does whatever it is that he’s doing, the feeling in this picture is very familiar. And I’m sure the look on my face is much the same.
Just to be upfront about it – I love this picture. Though Charlie was merely a capable draughtsman of the human form, every detail of this picture speaks volumes.
The story is clear from the surroundings and the look of … sultry disgust on the Indian woman’s face. Here is a beautiful and sexualized woman – notice the nearly exposed breast and the provocative curve of hip. Her pallet is ready for company, but the fire in the foreground has grown cold (a witty joke), the dinner bowl is now empty, and the long pipe is cast aside and unused (ditto). Like the wispy smoke from the dead fire, there is only a dissipating trace of something that was once hot.
Most delicious of all is the look on her face: a mixture of disappointment, fury, resignation and bored familiarity. One has the distinct impression that this has happened before, and will probably happen again in the future. And she knows it.
So … why do I like this painting so much? Mainly because Charlie’s views on humanity were much smarter and commonsensical than the ways we are taught to think today. Charlie knew many Native Americans in his time in the West, and genuinely liked them. He was one of nature’s democrats – he judged people as individuals, and knew that, as groups, people are more alike than they are different.
Today, we are taught that our differences matter more than our similarities, and that our cultural peculiarities are some sacred carapace that protect us from being more like one another. Charlie would’ve thought we were crazy (and I’m with Charlie). This picture works so well because Charlie was able to capture the look of everyone who has ever waited for their wife or husband to show up. It would be the same picture if the woman was in an Asian setting, or a Middle-European one, or in a contemporary American home: and that is Charlie’s point. We’re all people, and we’re all more alike than we are different.
Charlies notions don’t have much currency in today’s world, but how much of commonsense does, nowadays?
Next week: New and Noteworthy Books