This event was organized to celebrate the publication of a complete list of the work of C.M. Russell in two modes: one a very expensive book (for sale on the spot, which was the CMR Museum in Great Falls) and the other a website which will continue to be updated, since there are over a thousand CMR paintings known and probably more unknown. (Dick Flood combed the territory in the middle of the last century, always hopeful of finding an original in some attic or chicken coop. Or something that LOOKED like a Russell. Someone remarked in a loud voice, “They say that Dick Flood could sign Russell’s signature better than Russell himself.” Heresy!) A humonguous amount of information and disinformation to sort out.
Much of the value of art depends upon “provenance” -- an account of where the object has been from the time it was created -- and that information along with size, subject, media, and other remarks are included in a “Catalogue Raisonne.” (I’m creating a primitive version of one for Bob Scriver’s work in a blog elsewhere.) When one buys the book, one also gets a password that allows access to the website which is the truly useful acquisition for research. It’s just that you can’t put a website on your coffee table. It looked as though sales were brisk.
The concern I discussed the day before in Helena with a friend popped up again at this meeting when I was visiting beforehand. A famous prize-winning book was mentioned by a fan of the Blackfeet who remarked that it would be interesting to find the original journals from which this book was supposed to be derived. As it happens, this author was a predator and a faker. I told the fan that there probably were NO journals. The fan said, “Gee, I thought it must be okay, since it fitted with Ewers.” Of course it did. He was QUOTING Ewers. But faking journals isn’t a particular crime. Victimizing an old man and his family certainly is.
But -- the agenda on this day was CMRussell and, remarkably, the major Russell scholars were all on hand. Anne Morand is the Chief Executive Officer of the CMR Museum. B. Byron Price is the Director of the CMR Center for the Study of Western Art in Oklahoma City and I think I heard someone say he is now the head of the University of Oklahoma Press. Anne’s presentation was on other artists of the time who had influenced Charlie’s painting and, remarkably, projected side-by-side versions of very similar compositions and subject matter. Of course, there are not a lot of ways to depict riding up alongside a buff and shooting an arrow into it. On the other hand, there was a derived version of Hiawatha that mostly just converted him from a Woodland Indian to a Plains Indian. B. Byron Price simply explained how to operate the website.
Peter H. Hassrick is the Director of the Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum and here’s where my inner pessimist began to take it on the chin. Instead of talking about how much money the art was worth and who collected it, he talked about the ACTUAL WORK and how it developed over the years. Clearly Charlie was going along doing his own thing with happiness and success until he and Nancy went to New York City about the turn of the century. Quality makes a huge jump at that point, which plainly came from visiting galleries and interacting with other artists. Since he often returned to the same subjects, it’s easy to find comparisons of, say, a bronc invading the cook’s campfire from both early and later periods. Anyone could see the difference in color, design, paint-handling and so on.
Brian Dippie is a professor of history at the University of Victoria in B.C., Canada, and a native of Edmonton. As such, he kindly wrote the foreword for my book about Bob Scriver which just went to the printer in Calgary. Since meeting Brian in Helena at a previous History Conference, I’ve always thought he was such a joyfully erudite person that I would love to run off with him. But now that I’ve met his wife, I think I would do just as well to run off with HER! I doubt anyone could separate them nor should they. But I see now that the reason Brian could see something in my book that others could not was simply that he is married to that lively woman and therefore able to accept women in general. Brian’s presentation wittily argued that Charlie, who rode up into Alberta as though no border existed and had some of his best early experiences there, was actually a Canadian. He cinched his argument with the address on a letter from the Prince of Wales, whom Charlie met up there. “Great Falls, CANADA.”
Raphael James Cristy, CMR impersonator, walked us through some of Charlie’s writing. Dyslexic and dysgraphic, something in Charlie’s brain wiring prevented proper spelling or even decent hand-writing, but in terms of narrative and image, he was unbeatable, exactly suited to his time and place. Cristy is able to make this immediately vivid.
Rick Stewart, Curator of Western Painting and Sculpture at the Amon Carter Museum, addressed Charlie’s watercolors and proposed that the only American artist to touch him was Winslow Homer -- that in fact the two men separately took a similar trail through the flood of popular information about water color painting that washed through the country around the turn of the century. Stewart was able to specifically name the pigments used, how that shifted when the just-founded chemical industries provided new paints, what Charlie’s strategy was (working from dark to light or light to dark, from figure to background or background to figure, treating foreground loosely or with detail, achieving transparency in shadows, how much to underdraw and why to use graphite rather than charcoal) -- it was a revelation. He talked about the size of brush Charlie used (often sable #2 or 7) and how he sometimes modified them by pulling out or trimming hairs. He talked about working flat on the ground or floor and how naturally that came to Russell who began drawing and painting “en plein air” -- as is fashionable now -- because he was camping and had no table! He showed how the painting would have been turned to make the paint run in long washes for a sky and pointed out in one photo that Charlie’s fingertip was dirty from pushing puddles of pigment around. Stewart is an artist himself and by the time he got through, one began to think that art must be the most rewarding sort of enterprise there is!
I drove home seeing Charlie Russell colors on all sides: the purply “gentle” gray from cobalt blue, the arsenic green to gold ochres and Naples Yellow of ground, the transparent blues from ultramarine, the warm grays from rose madder as sunset approached. The buttes and coulees are still there. One’s vision is renewed by Charles M. Russell, which is the whole point in the end.