THE AUTHENTIC COWBOY ARTIST

Charles M. Russell

 “Old Ma Nature was kind to her red children and the old time cow puncher [referring to himself] was her adopted son”—CMR

 “The worst woman alive, in my opinion, is as good or better than the best man I know.”—CMR

“It’s the women that makes the men in this world.”—CMR

How could one not be endeared of the homespun character who spoke those quotes?  As warm and humorous as his sentiments, Charles Russell also reflected the godawfulness of his era.  No Indian would be shocked to learn that Charlie Russell was just a man.  He had good and bad sides, and he didn’t suppress either leaning.  Nothing is known about the women who were the subjects of Russell’s lesser-known erotic images.  After Russell married, it became his wife’s lifework to expunge all erotica produced before their marriage. 

Despite Charles Russell’s impressive body of sculpture and painting, he never considered himself a high-toned artist but called himself an illustrator.  Russell catered to an audience that no longer felt ‘genocidal hatred’ for the American Indian.  The tribes survived in such abject state, that citizens felt romantic nostalgia for what was believed to be the vanishing Indian race and culture. 

When Dr. Raphael Cristy portrayed Charles M. Russell at Tamástslikt, he cautioned that Russell was a product of his times, when it was simply normal to strike derogatory attitudes about Indians.  According to Cristy, Russell clearly aimed to create sympathetic portraits of Indian life.  Russell wanted to persuade his audience that Indians were human like themselves.  Believing in his influence, he said, “Betwine the pen and the brush there is little diffornce but I belive the man that makes word pictures is the greater.”

Like food and water, sex was an inexorable appetite of white men in the western territories of the 19th century.   Russell drew on the frontier experiences of his youth when he portrayed Indian females ranging from the dignified horsewomen of “Women of the Plains” to “Indian Maid at the Stockade” to further extremes. 

 “For all the credit Charlie has been given for his progressive sensitivity to Indians it must also be remembered that Indian pornography was one of his trademarks.  The only erotica of Charlie’s that survives today—Cowboy Bargaining for an Indian Girl, Joy of Life, and Anticipation/Exasperation are anatomically vivid paintings of cowboys procuring and mounting Indian women, “ wrote John Taliaferro in Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist.  The Amon Carter Museum stores Joy of Life in its basement to protect the eyes of school tours.  When Joy of Life was exhibited at the Mint saloon in its heyday, viewers paid 10 cents to view the peepshow beneath the tipi flap. 

As a romantic, Russell mostly depicted Indians as they lived when the buffalo thrived, not after their way of life came crashing down.  According to Taliaferro, the state of the native economy in the great plains became dire.  “Impoverished and starving wives and daughters often were driven to selling their bodies to whites to stay alive,“  wrote Taliaferro.

None of the paintings cited above are in the current Tamástslikt exhibit.  Charles M. Russell:  Master of Western Art is purely family fare.  When booking exhibits, no one takes account of works absent from the exhibition.  Visitors view Russell’s works for the moments they represent.  We are able to look at the products of the artist’s journey rendered with such draftsmanship and authenticity, without taint. 

“Like all things that happen that’s worth while, it’s a long time ago”– Rawhide Rawlins, Charles Russell’s fictional narrator

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