A new exhibition just opened at the C. M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana. At first glance, the title “Charles Russell: Women in His Life and Art” seems out of line, perhaps an ill-fit for America’s cowboy artist. Most western art aficionados I know value Russell artwork because he created such realistic images of wildlife and he portrayed the Plains Indian tribes with such accuracy. Since Russell lived the “cowboy way of life” he produced poignant and accurate artwork of scenes related to that. But women?
I’ve been to the Russell Museum many times and as I started viewing this latest exhibition I recalled some of the artwork chosen for his portrayal of women. The paintings from the museum’s permanent collection were very familiar to me although when viewing them I never really singled out the fact that Russell stepped out of what I thought was typical for his subject matter. The one exception to that is Wood Nymph c.1898, a watercolor gouache and graphite on paper. I always wondered what Charlie was thinking with that beautiful, pastoral, sensual and incredibly not-his-style painting!
This current exhibition has the background information I needed to understand more about Russell’s portrayal of women in his art. I learned that in the 19th and 20th centuries both Venus and Psyche were fashionable subjects among not only artists, but writers and poets. Just because Charlie Russell was living in Montana I assumed that cultural trends and Hollywood fiction didn’t have an affect on my cowboy artist.
Charlie Russell painted five images of reclining Indian maidens from 1896 – 1899. Referred to collectively as the Keeona series, Russell used exotic bright colors and rich tipi interiors to portray the maidens. Beauty Parlor c.1897 as been a favorite painting of mine. The interior of the tipi scene shows a domestic, but also intimate, way of life. As typical, each painting seems to have not one, but many, story themes interwoven.
Indian Woman Moving Camp c.1896 and Moving Out c.1897 both show the hard and tedious work done by Indian women. As the nomadic Plains Indians moved camp, everything from tipi hides and poles, to babies on their backs wrapped in blankets, was taken across the unbroken landscape. One painting shows a baby on a cradle board that was then affixed to a
saddle horn. The interpretation notes stated that babies were carried in their mothers’ arms on horseback until they were six months old and then they were placed on cradle boards. Charlie Russell had close bonds with the Indian tribes and the majority of women in his artwork were Native.
At a time when gender is a topic of conversation in our present-day society, one art collector at the exhibit opening noted that at times Russell’s portrayal of women could be called risqué and risky. I agree but I also think Charlie painted primarily what he saw in everyday life and treated his subjects with respect.
Over the years, Russell’s portrayals of Native women transitioned from fair maidens, sometimes viewed seductively, to heroic mothers and hard working spouses. One piece of art, Mothers Under The Skin c.1900, pen and ink on paper, showed contrasting lifestyles between white and Native women. A white mother is shown watching her baby while in a wooden swing as a Native woman walks by with a baby wrapped in a blanket and carried on her back.
Artwork in Charles M. Russell: The Women in His Life and Art certainly portrays a timely subject and pieces displayed span the majority of his career. A variety of Russell’s early paintings and late-career masterpieces mix to round out this unique exhibition.
Themes of family and relationships are strong in this exhibition. Russell’s life was shaped by his wife Nancy and most people give her credit for marketing the cowboy artist to his high level of success.
A book has been published about Charles M. Russell: Women in His Life and Art. Editing was done by Joan Carpenter Troccoli with an introduction by Brian Dippie. Other contributors include Emily Crawford Wilson, Jennifer Bottomly Looney and Thomas Petrie. After donor recognitions were given on opening night, a line quickly formed to purchase autographed copies of the book.
Charles M. Russell: The Women in His Life and Art will be on display at the C. M. Russell Museum in Great Falls through September 30, 2018. The exhibit then travels to Scottsdale, Arizona’s Museum of the West for display November 1, 2018 through April 14, 2019.
I’ll be back, hopefully several times over the summer, to absorb more of this delightful exhibition.