Category Archives: From the Vault

Ma Nature

A few months ago, the museum hosted a lecture by Byron Price, Director of Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma. During the program, Price discussed Charles Russell’s depictions of wild animals, which comprise roughly a quarter of the artist’s total production of paintings, drawings and sculpture! Even when animals are not the principal focus of a particular work, their presence is often palpable in the skins, horns, bones and effigies the artist added to many scenes in the interest of authenticity and allegory. Byron Price’s presentation explored Russell’s animal art as a reflection of the artist’s world view, the ideas and values he embraced and the times in which he lived.

Charles M. Russell | Deer in Forest (White Tailed Deer) | 1917 | Oil on canvasboard | 14 inches x 9 7/8 inches

Charles M. Russell, Indians Hunting Buffalo (Wild Men’s Meat; Buffalo Hunt), 1894, Oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 36 1/8 inches

Charles M. Russell | Buffalo Hunt | 1901 | Oil on canvas | 24 1/8 inches x 36 1/8 inches

Charles M. Russell | Guardian of the Herd (Nature’s Cattle; Buffalo Herd; Before the White Man Came) | 1899 | Watercolor, pencil & gouache on paper | 20 5/8 inches x 29 1/8 inches

Russell was always an admirer of Mother Nature. As a child, he developed a love & respect for many animals, and in particular, the American bison. Gather up all of Russell’s artworks, and you’ll find that over 250 of them have “buffalo” in the title. And the artist produced at least 75 paintings of bison hunts.

Growing up, Russell copied hunting scenes he found in books and magazines. One of his earliest influences includes the early American artist George Catlin. Catlin was one of the first American artists to travel West to document and paint the people, plants, and animals he encountered. This collection of work comprised what became known as Catlin’s Indian Gallery, which he exhibited throughout the U.S. and in Europe. (And you might remember Catlin’s work from our 2014-2015 exhibit Take Two: George Catlin Revisits the West.)

“Buffalo Chase––Bulls Protecting the Calves,” George Catlin (1796-1872), (Cartoon No. 153) Oil on card mounted on paperboard, 18 1/2 x 25 1/16 in., National Gallery of Art, Washington, Paul Mellon Collection

Another artist who made an early impact on Russell was German artist Carl Wimar. Wimar was known for his representations of Plains Indians and their buffalo hunts. Having settled in St. Louis, where he spent much of his career, Wimar’s work would have been visible to Russell in many public buildings around the city. (Russell was born and raised in St. Louis.)

Charles Ferdinand Wimar (American, b. Germany, 1828–1862), The Buffalo Hunt, 1860. Oil on canvas, 35 7/8 x 60 1/8″. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Gift of Dr. William Van Zandt, 1886.

Throughout his life, Russell enjoyed the company of hunters. When he first traveled to Montana as a teenager to fulfill his dreams of becoming a cowboy, Russell left his first job working on a sheep ranch to travel around the Judith Basin with mountain man Jake Hoover. Hoover was a skilled hunter and trapper and helped Russell get settled into life on the frontier.

Despite spending time with hunters, Russell himself never hunted. He always viewed hunting as a means to provide food. He did not approve of hunting for sport. His views of hunting are reflected in his titles of such scenes in which he refers to the wild game as “meat.” Examples include:

Fresh Meat, (c. 1880)

His Winter’s Meat, (c. 1890)

Wild Meat For Wild Men, (1890)

Charles M. Russell | Wild Man’s Meat (Redman’s Meat) | 1899 | Pencil, watercolor and gouache on paper | 21 inches x 30 inches

Bringing Home The Meat, (c. 1910)

Christmas Meat, (1915)

When Meat Was Plenty, (1915)

When Tracks Spell Meat, (1916)

Fighting Meat, (1919)

Meat’s Not Meat til Its in the Pan, (1915)

Likewise, one can use the artist’s titles as evidence of the evolution of Russell’s views on the activity once known as “wolfing.” In the late 19th century, due to attacks on livestock, a campaign against the great gray wolf was made and overtime the occupation of hunting, trapping, and poisoning these wolves became known as “wolfing.” Young cowboys like Charlie Russell would partake in these activities during the off season, as many states provided a bounty for the capture and killing of gray wolves. Russell later lamented his participation in poisoning wolves one season early in his cowboy career, an activity he said he regretted the rest of his life. One can witness the transformation of Russell’s views of “wolfing” from an activity of fun and sport with titles of early paintings like Cowboy Sport – Roping a Wolf (1890) to an understanding of the fatal effects of these pursuits in later titles like At Rope’s End (1909) or Death Loop (1912).

Charles M. Russell | Cowboy Sport – Roping a Wolf | 1890 | Oil on canvas | 20 inches x 35 3/4 inches

One thing remained true throughout Russell’s life – a belief in the superiority of what he called “Ma Nature.”

Charles Russell, Man’s Weapons Are Useless When Nature Goes Armed, 1916, Oil on canvas, 30 inches x 48 1/8 inches

Nancy Russell: Wife & Business Manager

Today, Charles M. Russell is a household name among patrons of art of the American West. Who do art historians consistently credit for being the reason we have the beautiful Russell artworks that not only grace our galleries at the Sid Richardson Museum, but many public and private collections around the world? The artist’s wife, Nancy Cooper Russell.

Born in 1874 in Kentucky, Nancy Cooper moved with her family to Montana in 1890. Four years later, at the age of 16, Nancy was left to fend for herself and eventually found work as a live-in housekeeper for a couple in Cascade, Montana. It was at their home where Nancy first met Charlie. A year later, in 1896, they married. Charlie was 32. Nancy was 18.

“I married the only Charlie Russell in the world, and my life has been full of romance, which they like to make movies out of, only mine happens to be real.”     Nancy Russell, 1924

Charles M. Russell Research Collection (Britzman)
Charles M. Russell and Nancy C. Russell
Silver gelatin print
Overall: 8 × 10 in. (20.3 × 25.4 cm)
GM TU2009.39.5647a
Gilcrease Museum/University of Tulsa, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Although Nancy was young and had little education, she possessed great motivation. Without Nancy’s direction and business savvy, Charlie could have easily continued his life as a cowboy, trading sketches for drinks at the nearby tavern rather than becoming one of the highest paid living artists of his time. Nancy was not only Charlie’s wife, companion, and supporter, but she quickly became the artist’s business manager and gifted public relations expert. She guided Charlie on his choice of subjects, size, and medium of his works in response to buyer preferences. Nancy was even known to have her husband touch up paintings to increase their appeal to collectors.

“My wife has been an inspiration to me in my work. Without her I would probably have never attempted to soar or reach any height, further than to make a few pictures for my friends and old acquaintances . . . I still love and long for the old west, but I would sacrifice it all for Mrs. Russell.”

                                                                     Charles M. Russell, 1919


The two were certainly opposites in many ways; Russell charismatic and playful, Nancy structured and driven. They complemented each other. Charlie referred to the two as partners. Like any marriage, theirs was not without its struggles. But in a letter Charlie wrote to Nancy, his “Mame,” in 1919, he described how he really felt about her:

Dear Mame it’s a week tonight you left and it seems like longer to me. I want you to stay til you get all rested. the longer you stay the glader IM be to see you … maybe I’v fallen in love the second time but it’s all right if its the same woman and it is.

And a week later:

Dear Mame Its two weeks tomorrow night you left and I hope your rest has made you ten years younger caus you’l need it to stand the hugs you’l get when you meet me. I’l admit it must seem funny after being married over twenty- two years [to] start writing love letters, but it dont seem like I ever wanted you like I do now .., well I guess I’l bed down. There is one girl I know that I wish was here. Your loving husband’

(CMR to Nancy Russell, February 6, February 12, 1919, Britzman Collection, Colorado Springs Fine Art Museum.)

Charles M. Russell Research Collection (Britzman)
Nancy C. Russell circa 1908
Silver gelatin print
Overall: 3 5/8 x 4 5/8 in. (9.2 x 11.7 cm)
GM TU2009.39.7654.21
Gilcrease Museum/University of Tulsa, Tulsa, Oklahoma

A self-taught business woman, Nancy was certainly a woman before her time. She was an advocate for her husband, a steward of his art, and a liaison to his patrons and critics. With her ability to take charge, Nancy Cooper Russell’s influence on Charlie’s career cannot be overlooked. Charlie was a lucky man.

The Pope and The Love Call

While Pope Francis travels around the US this week, I was reminded of a previous visit from the papal office. In October of 1965, Pope Paul VI visited the U.S. to address the United Nations in New York City. While he was there, President Lyndon Johnson traveled to NYC to call upon the pope at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

Shown in the photo, left to right: Mrs. Lyndon Johnson (Ladybird); Luci Johnson, daughter of the Johnsons; unknown official; Pope Paul VI; President Lyndon Johnson. Photograph courtesy LBJ Presidential Library, Austin, Texas.

Shown in the photo, left to right: Mrs. Lyndon Johnson (Ladybird); Luci Johnson, daughter of the Johnsons; unknown official; Pope Paul VI; President Lyndon Johnson. Photograph courtesy LBJ Presidential Library, Austin, Texas.

Before the visit, the White House Staff called the David Findlay Galleries in NYC. The Findlay Galleries was known for representing works of great 19th-century American artists like Frederic Remington, George Caleb Bingham and Charles Russell. Those in Fort Worth might be familiar with one of the most famous Western paintings, Remington’s A Dash for the Timber, which was acquired through the Findlay Galleries. The White House Staff reached out to Mr. Findlay to request the loan of some appropriately beautiful paintings to be placed in the meeting room as a backdrop for the meeting between the pope and the president. David Findlay, Sr., lent them Frederic Remington’s The Love Call, seen to the right of President Johnson.

Frederic Remington | The Love Call | 1909 | Oil on canvas | 31 x 28 inches

Frederic Remington | The Love Call | 1909 | Oil on canvas | 31 x 28 inches

Today, The Love Call sits prominently on display among the Sid Richardson Museum’s collection of Remington’s nocturnes.