Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Glimpse into the Life of Charles M. Russell, Cowboy Artist

By Paisley Kirkpatrick
In order that we may be able to remember Charlie Russell as not only an artist, but also as a cowboy, I am going to present a picture of him as seen through the eyes of several of his old associates. These men were the last of the old-time cowboys who actually rode the range with Russell, slept in the same tent, ate together sitting around the camp chuck wagon and listened to Charlie's stories. Russell wasn't much of a cowboy, they've told me, and the boys didn't think of him as an artist, but he was a good entertainer in their estimation and won their esteem.
Charlie used to carry a lump of clay in his pocket. When riding along, he'd take it out, work it around in his hands for a while, and almost without looking at it he would hold it up on display and say, "There you be, sitting up on your hoss," and it would be a good likeness of the man riding beside him, horse and all.
Charlie couldn't tell a cow from a bull. He couldn't even drive a bed wagon or herd four horses down a lane. He was a night herder and was expected at times to assist the cook and drive the bed wagon from one camp to the next.
One of his friends tells a story about the time the roundup was camped on Blood Coulee, north of Denton. The cook sent this cowboy to get wood, which was scarce in that country. Finally he located an old cabin, the roof of which had been blown off by a high wind. Riding up to it, he threw a rope around one of the logs and urged his horse forward. Just as the log fell there was a loud yell and off went Charlie Russell, holding up his pants and running like a scared Jack rabbit.
Another story is when one of the crew had a man-sized toothache, with one side of his face so swollen he felt lopsided. There was a dentist in town and he decided to ride there for treatment, a trip of about fifteen miles. Just as he was about to take off, Russell rode up and handed him a silver dollar. "I haven't had a bath or put clean clothes on for two months," Russell said. "While you're in town get me a suit of woolen underwear and I'll clean up."
When the cowboy got his tooth pulled it hurt so bad he couldn't stand the pain. He had to have a drink so he spent the dollar for a bottle (it was cheaper then) and had a good swig from it, and a couple more on the way back to camp. He kept wondering how he would explain all of this to Charlie. He decided finally that he'd have to tell the truth no matter how much it hurt.
Charlie was asleep when the cowboy reached camp. Without waking Charlie, he held the bottle under his nose and let him breathe the aroma of the whiskey for a while. When Charlie woke up, he had such a thirst he swore he'd have died on the spot if the cowboy hadn't brought the bottle. He didn't get his bath until after round-up time that fall.
In the early days on the prairie, the roundup horses were kept at night in a corral made of a single rope stretched around the horse herd. In the morning, each cowboy went out to the rope corral to catch the horse he needed for the day's work. Some cowboy more deft with a lasso always caught Russell's horse because invariably, when Russell began swinging his rope wildly to do it himself, the whole herd stampeded, broke the rope and had to be rounded up again.
True Charles Russell wasn't a cowboy -- not an accomplished one, let's say -- but he left behind him more in the way of real art than any man who ever straddled a horse and rode the wild open spaces. His paintings of the old west are among America's greatest treasures.
This brief picture into Charles Russell's life was written by Elizabeth M. Cheney and published in the May-June, 1960 issue of True West.
If you would like to see some of his work, here is a link to Wikipedia where they display some of the impressive talent of this man.


  1. Paisley--his art is truly timeless and unforgettable. He might not have been much of a cowboy himself, but he knew them well enough to paint great depictions. Probably most of use could recognize one of his pieces on sight.
    The story about the clay is unbelievable. But then I see any artist as some kind of miracle worker, as I cannot draw a stick figure right.
    Thanks for the "inside story" about Charles M. Russell.

  2. Paisley, I love Russell's art, but had no idea he wasn't a very good cowboy. Fun post. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Paisley, I love Russell's art, but had no idea he wasn't a very good cowboy. Fun post. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Very interesting. The name Charles Russell is so iconic when it comes to western art, it is interesting that to learn he was not a good cowboy, but talented in depicting those who were.

  5. My mother was an award winning artist and Charles Russell was a favorite of hers. I grew up with a lot of his books with the his art dissplayed inside. He was truly a remarkable man and his artword definitely showed what that life was like. :)

  6. Thanks Caroline. He showed like we are suppose to show in our stories. I love his art, too.

  7. Thanks Robyn. It's amazing he lived through his time on the trail, but I am glad he never gave up. His talent is our gift.


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