Like Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell was born to moderate wealth. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Russell first came to Montana as a boy of sixteen with a dream of becoming a real cowboy. He was so captivated with the West he chose to stay and fulfill his childhood fantasy.
During those first years in Montana, Russell received great encouragement from Jake Hoover, a mountain man who befriended him and took him under his wing. Hoover often shared his cabin with the young Charlie, sometimes providing food and shelter for months at a time. This friendship allowed Russell to experience the ways of the frontier life he would later portray so vividly in his paintings.
In 1882 Charlie landed a job as a wrangler on a cattle drive. He wrangled for eleven years, and while he was not known for being a good roper or rider, Russell established a local reputation as the affable cowboy who loved to draw and knew how to tell a great story. As a self-taught artist, his sketches were crude but reflected an observant eye, a feel for animal and human anatomy, a sense of humor and a flair for portraying action - all hallmarks of Russell's mature art.
Throughout his years on the range, he witnessed the changing of the West. He saw the bitter winter of 1886-87 end the cattleman's dominion on the northern plains. The days of free grass and unfenced range were ending and, for Russell, the cowboy life was over by 1893.
Prior to Russell's marriage to Nancy Cooper, in 1896, only a few of his works had been reproduced nationally. Although he was unsure of his ability to earn a living with his art, Nancy Russell recognized her husband's talent and promise, and provided the business sense and drive that eventually made her unambitious husband one of America's most popular artists. Success did not come easily for the Russells. Montana offered few opportunities for art sales, which eventually led them to New York where contact was established with other artists interested in Western themes. At the very time Frederic Remington was getting out of illustration to concentrate on painting, Russell secured illustrating assignments and began to gain exposure through exhibitions and press coverage. His emergence in the art world came in 1911 with a one man show at a New York gallery, followed three years later by an exhibition in London.
Charles Russell felt deeply the passing of the West, the most evident theme of his art. This sense of loss touched him with an emotional immediacy. He was haunted by youthful fantasies, memories of what once was and by the evidence of change that surrounded him as an everyday reality. His work reflected the public demand for authenticity, but also the soul of a romantic.
Source: Adapted from Brian Dippie, Remington & Russell: The Sid Richardson Collection. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.