The Wild West of Yester-Year

Charles M. Russell
By Rachel Kovaciny

You know artwork is amazing when it gets used as part of a plot for a popular TV show, right? Even if the show has to fudge a few dates so they can include a piece of art in a story that takes place thirty years before it was actually created. That’s what the producers for The Big Valley did so they could include Charles M. Russell’s painting Jerked Down in the 1967 two-part episode called “Explosion!” Russell didn’t paint Jerked Down until 1907, and the show supposedly takes place in the mid-1870s. But the painting suited the show’s storytelling needs perfectly, so the producers used it anyway. Jerked Down is an exciting, evocative painting of cowboys roping steers, and that’s what the show needed, so that’s what they used. Never mind that Russell would only have been about ten or twelve when the show took place. The painting was too good to pass up.

Charles Marion Russell was born in Missouri in 1864, when the American Civil War was raging. As he grew up, he dreamed of the Wild West he read about in dime novels and sensational newspaper stories. He drew endless sketches of imaginary cowboys and American Indians in his schoolbooks, and he used clay to make rudimentary sculptures of horses and people. When he was sixteen, he left both school and Missouri behind him and took a job on a sheep ranch in Montana. For the next eleven years, Russell worked on several sheep and cattle ranches doing a variety of jobs. Whenever he could, he honed his artistic skills, both sketching and working with watercolors. When he was in his early twenties, he worked on a Montana ranch during the infamously hard winter of 1886-87. He did a small watercolor painting of an almost skeletal cow facing down a pack of rangy wolves, just something he’d encountered in daily life as a cowhand and recorded. His foreman liked the picture so much, he sent it to the ranch’s owner—some say he sent it in reply to a letter asking how the cattle were faring, and others say he saw it was a good picture and passed it along.

The ranch owner was so taken with the little watercolor piece, he had it displayed in a shop window in Helena, Montana, and Russell’s career as an artist was born. He later painted a larger version of the same scene, titled Waiting for the Chinook, which has become one of his most famous pieces. Both of them give you the sense of danger and excitement that came to characterize Russell’s art. Soon after that hard winter, Russell spent a year living with the Blood Indians, who were part of the Blackfeet nation. He gained a lifelong respect and compassion for American Indians. He championed various efforts to improve living conditions on reservations and helped to create a reservation in Montana for the Chippewa, who had no place of their own. Russell’s paintings of American Indians are notable for their historical authenticity and sympathetic portrayals of native life. He often painted native women in roles of importance and showed their daily work to be as worthy of capturing on the canvas as that of native men.

Charles Russell married Nancy Cooper in 1896. She managed the marketing and distribution of his artwork, leaving him free to create thousands of paintings, sketches, and sculptures. A year into their marriage, they moved to Great Falls, Montana, which remained their home from then on. Nancy Russell managed her husband’s career well, setting up exhibitions for his artwork across America, and even in European cities such as London.

In 1903, Russell built a log studio next to their home in Great Falls, where he completed all his paintings and sculptures. He filled his studio with artifacts from the Old West, mementos of an era fading before his eyes. Russell loved to sculpt and experimented with many mediums, such as clay, wax, and plaster, and created detailed pieces that were cast into bronze. He was driven to create artwork, even sketching and painting little scenes on letters and cards he sent to relatives, friends, and fans. Art permeated his life. He created an estimated 4,000 pieces before he died in 1926.

Russell captured the Old West just before it slipped away. Today, his artwork lets us glimpse the reality behind the legends and stories we still like to tell. His work is so strong and beautiful, it’s no wonder those Big Valley producers felt they had to include it in their own storytelling fifty years ago, even if they had to bend history a little to do so.