Though it may not be entirely true that deep in the breast of every aesthete beats the heart of a cowboy, it is certainly true of Your Correspondent. Thoughts of Christmas always seem to carry with them thoughts of the Wild West – it’s the way my brain is wired. For many Bing Crosby is the voice of Christmas; at The Jade Sphinx, it’s Gene Autry. (By the way, there is no better way to feel elderly – if not prehistoric – than by trying to explain who Gene Autry was to a young person.)
We have written about self-proclaimed ‘cowboy artist’ Charles Russell (1864-1926) before. When we reviewed his letters and diary snippets, we were delighted to learn 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.
Today’s beautiful watercolor, Christmas Meat painted in 1915, is a picture of great warmth, despite the presence of snow. In it, a Westerner brings a fresh-killed stag to a lone homesteader for Christmas dinner. Russell painted many Christmas pictures with greater whimsy (Westerners coming across Santa during a snowy night, for example), but here he chooses instead to illustrate the holiday with a simple act of kindness.
In these days of easy consumption and near-instant gratification, we forget the every-day difficultly of the lives of previous generations. Distances in the West were vast; a simple motor trip today would last several days on horseback. People were extremely isolated on the countryside, with no phones, electronic entertainment, news, or, very frequently, neighbors.
Russell, who went West in the waning days of the frontier, lived among the cowboys and knew how isolated it could all be. But, he also loved the West, and was continually moved by the neighborliness, the open-handed generosity and many acts of human kindness he encountered there.
Let’s take a look at Christmas Meat. As always, Russell’s command of anatomy is sketchy, at best (where, for example, is the rest of the cowboy’s left leg?), but he more he is more than able to pose his figures dramatically in the composition of narrative. The outstretched hand, the visible smile, the bow-legs, and upheld rifle speak volumes – here’s Christmas dinner, pard, I got it myself.
And look at the homesteader! Hand in his pants (so, clearly, a bachelor), complete with pipe and red union suit underwear, this man is clearly a character. And his head leans forward in thanks, in appreciation, and admiration.
Marvel at Russell’s sense of color. Blue is the dominant color … and wonderfully suggests the cold. The frozen trees in the distance are just impressionistic dabs of blue, as is the wooden smokehouse to the left. Even the smoke from the cabin’s fireplace has a blueish tint … rest assured, it is cold outside.
Also, Russell uses the mountains of his backdrop to illustrate the expanse of the Western terrain. There is no one for miles around; however, he undercuts the feeling of cold waste by a smart use of yellow. The yellow light in the distance, along with the warm yellow of the window and doorway of the cabin, illustrate the warmth of human kindness at Christmas time.
The partially cut wood in the foreground may seem superfluous, but Russell, a master of composition, knew that something was essential there to keep the eye moving through the picture. (It also serves to illustrate the cold … the homesteader does not tread far to get his firewood!)
This is a lovely little grace note of a picture, filled with honest feeling and a great deal of warmth. It doesn’t descend into the overly sentimental, and it shows people at their best.
As such, it makes for a hell of a Christmas picture.
More Christmas books tomorrow!