The Art and Soul of the West: Cowboy Artist – Charles Marion Russell

Just short of his sixteenth birthday in 1880, Charlie hopped a train for Montana to live the life of a cowboy and artist.

charles_marion_russellCharlie Russell was an artist of the Old American West who created paintings of cowboys, Indians, and landscapes set in the Western United States and in Alberta, Canada. He is known as the Cowboy Artist.

Charlie Russell was born into a wealthy and socially prominent family in St. Louis, Missouri, the second of five sons. His family numbered among the earliest American settlers in the St. Louis area. He was sent to a prestigious art school, but he hated its rigidity and formalized exercises and quit after only a couple of lessons. In a last-ditch attempt at formal education, his desperate parents sent him to a boarding school in New Jersey. Less than three months later, just short of his sixteenth birthday in 1880, Charlie hopped a train for Montana to live the life of a cowboy and artist.


After an unsuccessful stint working on a sheep ranch, he found work with a hunter and trapper turned rancher named Jake Hoover. The two men remained lifelong friends. After a brief visit to his family in 1882, he returned to Montana, where he remained for the rest of his life. He worked as a cowboy for a number of outfits, and documented the harsh winter of 1886-1887 in a number of watercolors.


In 1896, Russell married his wife Nancy. He was 32 and she was 18. Under her support and guidance, Russell gained national recognition and successfully marketed his art. Along with her promotional talents and his observations, Russell and his art improved dramatically after 1903 when he and Nancy began making regular visits to New York.

Near the end of his life he told one reporter:

Nancy“I don’t lay any claim to being a genius, but I will say my wife has been an inspiration to me in my work. Without her I would probably never have attempted to soar or reach any height, further than to make a few pictures for my friends and old acquaintances in the west. I still love and long for the old west, and everything that goes with it. But I would sacrifice it all for Mrs. Russell . . . ”

He was a “real” cowboy, lived with a mountain man and was an adopted brother of the Blackfoot tribe.

His oils, watercolors and bronzes reflect an intimate knowledge of his subjects, and no one was more surprised than he when they began fetching high prices.

Russell completed approximately 4,000 artworks during his lifetime.

Living 46 years in the West, he knew his subject matter intimately, setting the standard for many western artists to follow. Charles M. Russell died in Great Falls, Montana on October 24, 1926.

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