The Amon Carter Museum of American Art is currently hosting an exhibition of watercolors by Charles Russell. The show offers an insight into the images we associate with the West.
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The first Western novel – The Virginian – was published in 1902. The first Western movie – The Great Train Robbery – came a year later.
By that time, Charles Russell had already been developing our romantic image of the West for close to 20 years. When the writers and directors who followed him needed source material for their stories, they turned to Russell’s watercolors.
“The early impetus for those people writing the novels or writing the scripts and scripting the films was to be realistic,” says Rick Stewart, the former director of the Amon Carter, who curated the Russell exhibition. “And so they had to look for sources. And the sources they found right away were the works of Russell. Everybody said, ‘Oh, Charlie knows everything about the Indians. It’s accurate, believe me – I’ve been through this.’ And the cowboys would say the same thing. The cowboys would often say, ‘There’s nobody who paints a cowboy like Charlie Russell.’”
Russell grew up in St. Louis – the Gateway to the West – and left home at 16 to become a cowboy in the Montana territory. After a day of riding with the herd, he sketched what he’d experienced with the help of art books. His DIY spirit matched the make-your-own-way attitude of his subjects.
Russell’s paintings offer an untarnished, pure vision of the West. American Indians are depicted as proud warriors and skilled horsemen. Cowboys are rugged and fueled by the frontier spirit. When Russell painted the two together – as in 1910’s A Doubtful Handshake – he chose to focus on moments of mutual respect rather than the harsher realities.
Russell continued to paint until his death in 1926. In the early decades of the 20th Century, he befriended many of the filmmakers who had used his paintings as templates for their work. He hung out on their movies sets in Hollywood. And by the end of Russell’s career, the students had become the teachers.
“His late works have a quality of light and romance – romance I mean where he’s really elevating the subject in a way,” Stewart says. “Lighting it and making it appear like it’s almost iconic and symbolic. Not necessarily an individual Indian but an Indian on a rise with his horse, and he’s just looking like he’s part of a movie almost.”
Russell’s work influenced everyone from Cecil B. Demille to John Ford. Their films brought the myth of the American West to the masses. But it was Russell who brought the myth to them.
“Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell” is on display at the Amon Carter through May 13.