Charles Russell wrote eloquently about the decline of the American West in this quote from 1919: “Civilization is nature’s worst enemy. All wild things vanish when she comes. Where great forests once lived nothing stands but burnt stumps – a black shroud of death. The iron heel of civilization has stamped out nations of men, but it has never been able to wipe out pictures.”
Russell’s work will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in the show The Masterworks of Charles M. Russell: A Retrospective of Paintings and Sculpture, running from June 6 until August 29. This is a must-see show, so powerful are the images.
You have to reevaluate your impression of what the wild west really was when you gaze upon Russell’s images. The cowboys aren’t the romantic figures of modern movies but rather low class members of a society that has little use for them. MFAH curator Emily Neff explains that Russell was from a well-to-do family in St. Louis but chose to live and work as a wrangler. She also makes the point that Russell walked the walk and talked the talk unlike perhaps the best know western artist Frederic Remington, who was also from a wealthy family but would make trips outside of the East Coast region only to return to his studio in New York to paint his masterpieces.
Also present at the media preview, Joan Trocolli from the Denver Art Musuem’s Petrie Institute of Western American Art relates how Russell’s color palette, in certain paintings, reminds one of Maxfield Parrish. And regarding his bronze sculpture pieces, many of them mere inches tall, Trocolli remakes that Russell would mold a piece of wax, in front of amazed eyes, into a perfect replica of a buffalo or wolf, set it down on a table and then smash it flat with his hand.
The approximately 60 pieces are in chronological order. In a gallery from an early stage in his career are some lascivious paintings of Indian women, only it’s Russell’s wife who posed for the sexy paintings. Russell was hard pressed to show images of Indians in conflict, and would only do so for a large commission. In a Russell painting if the Indian is fighting he is likely fighting alongside rather than against cowboys.
One way to see how influential Russell’s paintings are is to compare “Caught in the Circle” with Remington’s “Fight For the Water Hole.” Russell’s art can captivate for several minutes on just one painting, so many things are going on in the frame. Russell puts skulls in the grass and points the viewer’s eye with lances or logs of felled trees. In a giant vista every hill and butte seems to have activity just over the ridge, all indicated by a torrent of dust caught in a glimmer of light.
– Michael Bergeron