Few artists or authors have shaped cultural views of the American West as much as Charles Marion Russell. Born in 1864, Russell was artistically active through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although Russell was also a sculptor and an author, he is most recognized for his paintings that depict scenes from the American West. These paintings are largely housed in a museum in Montana, but prints and reproductions of the originals have been circulated widely throughout the American West and East. One of my favorite furnishings at my grandparents’ house is a Charles Russell painting that hangs majestically on the living room wall. In the painting, Indians chase buffalo across the rolling plains of the West. The purpose of this blog post is to examine a few paintings representative of Charles Russell’s work and to determine whether these paintings show an accurate picture of the west.
Because of the scope and breadth of Russell’s works, it is hard to cover every cultural aspect his works represent. Two paintings in particular are well known and give relevant examples of how Russell influenced the cultural landscape surrounding the American West. The painting Smoke of a .45 depicts a group of cowboys engaged in combat outside a Western saloon. Horses and men are jumbled in a chaos while wreaths of gun smoke envelope the scene. The actions shown in this painting would feel right at home in a Western television show such as “Bonanza.” A question arises: Was this sort of violence really as prevalent in cowboy culture of the West as Russell and other artists make it out to be? The subject of Russell’s painting, the saloon, was a place where cowboys reveled after long weeks on the cattle drive. Saloons were places where cowboys could relax and spend their hard-earned money. As such, alcohol, and lots of it, was present at these saloons. Drunkenness prevailed, and personal quarrels subsequently followed. Because of this, the nature of a saloon could often contribute to a violent encounter. Gunfights were not out of the question in the saloons of the West.4 A few statistics confirm the existence of violence in cattle towns of the Old West. The combined homicide rate of the towns Ellsworth, Dodge City, Wichita, Abilene and Caldwell was 155 murders for 100,000 adult citizens every year in the time period 1876 to 1855.6 Such numbers show that the American West had a very high homicide rate. A far less conspicuous detail of this painting is more suspect than the violence the painting depicts. Cowboys came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds in the American West, but every character in this painting seems to be a white male. In the 1880’s, it is estimated that there were over 9,000 working African American cowboys.3 This statistic does not even take into account the other races that were represented among the ranks of cowboys. Thus, Russell’s painting is largely accurate, but it portrays a romanticized view of the cowboy and cowboy culture in the American West.
Another famous painting of Charles Russell is The Buffalo Hunt No. 39. In this vibrant acrylic painting, a band of Native American hunters chase down a herd of buffalo upon the Great Plains. The hunters ride dangerously close to the buffalo with bows drawn, a detail that connotes attributes of skill and bravery for the characters in the painting. With this painting in mind, how did buffalo hunts fit into Indian culture, and how were they conducted? Buffalo and the resources they provided were indeed a great part of Indian culture on the Great Plains. Buffalo skins were used for housing, clothing, and other needs. During the time period when Russell’s paintings were growing in popularity, however, buffalo hunts in Plains Indian culture were growing less frequent. The influx of white settlers and the subsequent massacre of the buffalo forced the Plains Indians to change their economic system to account for the lack of buffalo and other natural resources.5 Painters like Russell tried to capture fading realities of the West like the buffalo hunt.2 Charles Russell never witnessed a Native American buffalo hunt, but instead relied on the stories of trappers and other settlers of the West.1 As such, he received the most romantic rendition of how Plains Indians hunted and the buffalo hunt from horseback became a common theme in his works. This version of how Native Americans hunted has often been the version that is most propagated today in cultural depictions of the West.
Charles M. Russell contributed greatly the lore surrounding the American West through his paintings. These paintings show exciting and grand events of the American West. For the most part, these paintings are rooted in truth. The main ideas behind Russell’s brushstrokes ring true, but a few details contribute to common but erroneous perceptions of the West. His works are romanticized versions of the truth, and that perhaps is why they have had such a lasting effect on American culture surrounding the West.
By Neal Gray
Charles M. Russell, Smoke of a .45, 1908. Oil on canvas, 36.25 in. x 24.37 in. Amon Carter Museum
Charles M. Russell, The Buffalo Hunt No. 39, 1919. Oil on canvas, 30.125 in. x 48.125 in. Amon Carter Museum
1. Brian W. Dippie, “’Flying Buffaloes’: Artists and the Buffalo Hunt,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History Vol. 51, No. 2, Special Western Art Issue (Summer, 2001): 2-19
2. Corlann Gee Bush, “The Way We Weren’t: Images of Women and Men in Cowboy Art,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies Vol. 7, No. 3, Women on the Western Frontier (1984): 73-78
3. JBHE Foundation Inc., “Deadwood Dick and the Blackwood Cowboys,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education No. 22 (Winter, 1998-1999), pp. 30-31
4. George Ertel, “Saloons of the Old West,” The American Spectator (July 1980)
5. Jeffrey Ostler, ““The Last Buffalo Hunt” and Beyond: Plains Sioux Economic Strategies In the Early Reservation Period,” Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 2 (SPRING 2001), pp. 115-130
6. Randolph Roth, Michael D. Maltz, Douglas L. Eckberg, “Homicide Rates in the Old West”, Academia.edu