Charles Marion Russell's life on display at Montana museum

Montana museum is dedicated to the life and art of Charles Marion Russell

Charles Marion Russell and his wife, Nancy, had this house built in 1900 on Fourth Street North in Great Falls, Montana. The house is a permanent exhibit at the C.M. Russell Museum. (Courtesy of Rick Reed)

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When the Lord called Charlie to his home up yonder

He said, ‘Kid Russell, I got a job for you.

‘You’re in charge of sunsets up in old Montana,

‘Because I can’t paint them quite as good as you.’

GREAT FALLS, Mont. – Canadian singer-songwriter Ian Tyson’s “The Gift” pays tribute to Charles Marion “Charlie” Russell (1864-1926), considered by legions of folks, ranging from cowboys to art connoisseurs, to be the painter and sculptor who best depicted life as it was in the northern plains and mountains in the 1870s and 1880s.

He was good at sunsets up in old Montana, but he also memorialized with exacting detail the landscape, wildlife, Native American way of life, cattle-raising culture, sudden action and explosive violence of the Western frontier.

Russell was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but moved to Montana when he was 16 and lived their for the remainder of his days. He was an apprentice to a hunter and trader for two years and worked 11 years as a cowboy and horse wrangler, getting a taste of the life he would recreate in oils, watercolors and bronze when he became a full-time artist in 1893.

Russell produced more than 4,000 pieces of art, and one of the larger collections of his works is housed at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls.

Focal point

Various elements make up the C.M. Russell Museum. There are permanent exhibits devoted to the American bison or buffalo, and to the role of firearms in the American West. There are exhibits of Western art by persons other than Charlie Russell. Outside the museum, there is a sculpture garden, always free and open to the public, featuring six major wildlife bronzes by established artists, as well as a large sculpture of Russell himself.

A focal point for Russell fans is “Charles M. Russell: The Legacy,” a permanent exhibit displaying the museum’s collection of Russell’s oils, watercolors, bronzes, clay models, illustrated letters, pen-and-ink drawings and Russell possessions such as his saddle, cowboy hat and the woven waist sash he was fond of wearing.

A large statue of famed cowboy painter and sculptor Charles Marion Russell stands outside the Great Falls, Montana, museum dedicated to his art and legacy. (Courtesy of Rick Reed)

Here, visitors will see on the walls in front of them famous paintings they previously have been able to enjoy only in the pages of books.

Northern plains tribes are represented in “The Fireboat,” in which mounted warriors see a steamboat for the first time, and “The Waterhole,” which details members of a migrating band arriving at water.

“Mad Cow” illustrates the hazards faced by working cowboys and “Gun Fighters” shows that whiskey, gambling and loaded guns could be a lethal combination.

Mostly self-taught, Russell told stories with his art, tales based on things he experienced and witnessed and sketches he made in cow camps, but also on yarns he heard, historic accounts and his own imagination.

A good match

Russell married Nancy Cooper in 1896, a move as important to his career as his own talent, observations and instincts. It was Nancy who promoted her artist husband, marketed his art and cultivated buyers for his work at prices far more than he had been asking.

In 1900, Charlie and Nancy built a two-story, Victorian-style, frame house on Fourth Avenue North in Great Falls. Three years later, when Nancy tired of Charlie cluttering up the house’s living room with his canvases, paints and props, they had a log-cabin art studio built next door. It is that house and studio that make the C.M. Russell Museum unique because they are located on the museum’s grounds and are among its permanent exhibits.

Both the house and studio stand on their original sites and have been beautifully restored. It’s a treat to walk in the footsteps of Charlie and Nancy and imagine how their lives unfolded in these two buildings. A desk on the first floor, near the staircase, marks the place where Nancy worked at advancing Charlie’s career. A nursery on the second floor was put to use in 1916 when the Russells adopted a three-month-old boy they named Jack.

This desk, on the first floor of the Russell house, marks the place where Nancy Russell worked to promote and market her husband Charlie’s artwork. (Courtesy of Rick Reed)

The studio was built out of surplus telephone poles. Once Russell started working there, it is said he never finished a painting anywhere else. But it was more than a place to work. It was a man cave, too.

Russell’s cronies would gather there and after a day of painting, he would roll a cigarette, sit by the blaze in the stone fireplace and tell stories of his days in the saddle. Good times for the best cowboy artist ever.

Russell died in his Great Falls house on Oct. 24, 1926. In the funeral procession, Russell’s coffin was displayed in a glass-sided coach pulled by black horses. That coach is on display in the C.M. Russell Museum.

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