Charles Marion Russell (1864 – 1926) is fondly remembered as the preeminent painter in depicting cowboys, Indians, and everyday life in America’s Wild West. Similar to the work of Frederic Remington, Russell also immortalized many fundamental aspects of frontier life, such as horse taming, cattle herding, wagon trails, and cowboy shootouts.
Russell is responsible for many wild west tropes that most people think of today when imagining life in America at that time. His work on the subject also greatly inspired the movie industry, which borrowed heavily from Russell’s theme when coming up with ideas for cowboy movies.
He completed over 2,000 works of art during his lifetime. Each one is filled with striking movement, vivid color, and the natural beauty of the American landscape. Let’s look at what made Charles Marion Russell’s drawing so special.
Table of Contents
Bronc To Breakfast
The first that stands out when viewing a Charles Russell painting is the intense action and bright, bold colors surrounding the images he painted. It has been said these traits can be viewed as a mirror image of the enthusiasm in America at the time, as the country was still being settled in many parts.
As an art style, Russell used a somewhat cartoonish method to depict the scenes he painted. These illustrations have been compared to modern-day comic books in many regards, mainly thanks to their coloring style and the dramatic images contained within the scenes themselves.
Bronc To Breakfast is the perfect example of this. Its over-the-top scene of a cowboy on horseback kicking over the campfire is like a panel taken straight from a comic book or cowboy movie. The colors, too, are reminiscent of a 60’s graphic novel in its style and color palette. Yet, it is regarded as one of Russell’s best paintings for a reason.
In Without Knocking
Charles Marion Russell is mostly remembered for his renditions of highly dramatic and action-packed settings. However, these tantalizing paintings of gripping gunfights and death-defying horse rides inspire a color of a different kind, mainly the color of excitement and action.
In Without Knocking is Russell’s most iconic painting by far, alongside Smoke of A .45. Both are very similar to one another in that they dramatically depict the quintessential classic cowboy scene of a wild gunfight taking place on horses.
It was these types of Russell paintings, in particular, that Hollywood took for the creation of the Spaghetti Western movie genre. Admittedly, the paintings might be a little overly dramatic and embellished; nevertheless, they are the most famous and popular images in the entire Wild West genre.
The Herd Quitter
Another image synonymous with Russell’s paintings and the American West, in general, is the image of the lasso. For those unfamiliar with the term, a lasso is a rope used by cowboys to capture and tame wild horses, cattle, buffalo, and the like.
The iconic image of a cowboy lassoing a cow or bucking on top of a wild horse trying to tame it was integral to the backbone of American identity at that time. No other artist depicted this act of daring bravely quite as Russell did.
The Herd Quitter is a mix of a lasso scene and the high-action set pieces Russell is known for. The list of these types of paintings in Charles Russell’s collection is actually quite extensive. Some others worth checking out are The Bucker, The Round-Up, and The Mad Cow, to name just a few.
When Blackfoot And Sioux Meet
Like many American artists of the time, Russell dedicated a large portion of his work to depicting the culture and lifestyle of the Native population. However, to better understand these indigenous people, Russell actually spent some time living with a Native American tribe, where he learned all about their culture and customs.
This hands-on experience comes through in practically all of Russell’s Native American paintings. Even though some might be seen as negative propaganda towards the Indians, there is an obvious appreciation for the culture too. Russell dedicated many to the Native Americans, many of which showcase their courage, culture, and free spirit.
When Blackfoot and Sioux Meet is just one of these paintings that highlights both the bravery and brutality of these humble people, like all Russell’s paintings, the characters here are like larger-than-life action heroes. But, again, the cartoonish style lends itself wonderfully to the theme of life being like a dramatic movie or video game.
Bringing Up The Trail
Not all Wild West paintings are about action or drama. Instead, many of the best works from the period focus on the peaceful tranquility of vast American plateaus and broad mountain ranges. Many people don’t realize just how beautiful and grandiose the landscapes of America are. Russell’s art did a great job of showcasing.
Unlike American landscape painters of the time, such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, Charles Russell’s artwork always has people as their central point of focus. This approach enhances the landscapes’ views, as they are always taken from a ground-level human perspective.
While most landscape paintings are frozen moments in time, Russell’s paintings always have the impression of movement. Take Bringing Up The Trail, for example. In the painting, there is a sense of awe at the scope of the land, but a Native American tribe also accompanies this on the move. This combination adds a much-needed human element missing from most other landscape paintings.
Charles Marion Russell’s unique vision of the American Wild West is a sight to behold. They might be somewhat cartoonish compared to other more realistic paintings from the period. However, they greatly succeeded in showcasing both the cowboy and Indian way of life, shaping the iconic image into what they are known as today.