Charles Marion Russell was born into wealth and luxury, March 19, 1864 just as the Civil War was ending. He grew up in St.Louis, in a loving and tightly-knit prosperous family. St.Louis was still the center of westward and southwestern expansion at that time. It was full of every frontier character you could imagine. Charlie’s two uncles, the Bents, were legendary western heroes. As a kid, Charlie couldn’t get enough of western lore and excitement. He was a poor student, but loved to draw and model clay figures. His parents, much to their credit, encouraged his art. In 1879, they sent Charlie east to a military school, hoping that the discipline would improve his school work. It didn’t work. At age sixteen, Charlie’s frustrated parents had a new plan. Send him west to a family friend’s sheep ranch. That would smarten him up!
Charlie was thrilled going west…he was there at last, surrounded by a thriving cattle industry and real cowboys. Charlie was mortified …he was a sheep herder. He quit and headed for a stage relay station near Utica that had a job open for a horse wrangler. When he got there, the job was taken.
Refusing to go back to the sheep ranch, Charlie had no clue what to do…and no money. His last cent was spent on buying Monte, his life-long faithful pinto for forty dollars. He wandered off into the hills of the Judith Basin. His loving family, who thought that he was being sheltered and cared for at the sheep ranch would be distressed… had they known what was going on.
Charlie Russell was a likeable kid and all his life he attracted guardian angels into his life, when he most needed them. The first was Jake Hoover, veteran mountain man and prospector. He simply bumped into this lost kid wandering through the hills. Jake took Charlie under his wing and they spent two years together. With Hoover, Charlie lost his rich-kid attitude and replaced it with wilderness bravado.( Later angels that came into Charlie Russell’s life were Con Price, Frank Linderman, the Trigg family, Phillip Goodwin, the new York artist who really clued Charlie into using color in his paintings, and especially Nancy Cooper…without her you and I would likely never have of heard of Charlie and his work in 2013.
Hoover and kid Russell lived in a shack in the Belt mountains and Hoover would hunt deer and deliver that wild meat to the ranchers in the valley. Charlie wouldn’t hunt, but he made himself useful. Because the cattle industry was prospering, eastern visitors to the ranges were common. Charlie, with his good looks, good name, frontier dress, and the ability to entrance watchers with his then, simple sketches, was a winner. The young ladies from the east loved him and he especially loved Lollie Edgar. Their parents knew each other well in St.Louis, but the relationship never worked out. Lollie had to go to school in the East. Charlie went back home to his parents after two years in the wild west.
His parents were impressed with his new found maturity and independence. Charlie came from money and he always had a safety net, yet only infrequently did he count on his parents financial support…but it was always there. Charlie went back west and was hired as a night herder for 400 horses by Horace Brewster. Much to Brewster’s surprise Charlie was good at it. Charlie nighthawked for the next eleven years. Charlie was never a good roper or bronc rider. His was the lowest job on the range…but it was lonely and dangerous at night. Blood and Piegans were around, it was only a few years after the Little Bighorn and Custer’s defeat. The Riel Rebellion was starting in Canada. One of the last paintings Charlie did was “Laugh Kills Lonesome”. Take a look at it, a good painting like that beats a thousand words.
Over that eleven years of cowboying, Charlie became a local celebrity because he was the only guy in the country who could sketch and paint local, familiar scenes. He became a hard drinker because his buddies were…it was just part of the cowboy lifestyle. Booze, cards, women…or” faster horses, younger women, older whiskey and more money”…as the song goes. Charlie even opened his own saloon but he and his friends drank up all the profits. Charlie would swap paintings for drinks and his cowboy buddies appreciated that. He never drank alone and was always popular…even with upper class tea-tottlers. He was such a unique guy that he and his art made good copy for the local newspapers. His paintings hung in shop windows waiting to be sold (always underpriced)
In 1886, the winter was so severe that cattle died everywhere. Charlie sketched “the Last of 5000, Waiting for a Chinook, and it was sent to the herd owners as a description of the devastation. That little card really got Charlie a lot of attention. Charlie had a calling and now a real local following all over the state.
In 1888, Charlie, Phil Weinard and B. J. Stillwell took off for Alberta in the spring. Weinard had a job waiting for him but Charlie and B.J. just bummed around, flat broke, living off the land for three months. Fortunately for Charlie, their camp, near High River, Alberta was criss-crossed by Indian trails. Charlie had learned some sign language and was soon communicating with the Stoney, Cree, Peigan, Blood, and Sarcee tribes. Apsinka, the head of a family of Bloods, spoke some English and took a real liking to Charlie. Apsinka had a teen-age daughter, whom Weinard described as “ a very handsome girl”. “ Going injun” was something Charlie understood, his great-uncle, William Bent had been a squaw man. At this point a myriad of myths start to confuse the issue. Some writers claim that Charlie wintered and married into the Bloods. Truthfully, later in his life, Charlie did many erotic paintings of native women, so who really knows what happened. One thing for sure is that Charlie and Stillwell headed south and did not winter in Alberta. That year Charlie spent Christmas in St.Louis with his family, not in a Blackfoot teepee. Charlie was in the habit of returning home every two years or so…his family ties were always strong and it is to his credit that he did not just return when he was down and out. He could count on his friend Ben Roberts in Cascade to help him out in times of poverty and hard drinking. Charlie was getting older and perhaps discouraged. He claimed that he had tried several times to make a living as an artist but always was forced to go back to cowpunching.
I always thought of Charlie as a jewel in the rough, uncouth, a raw cowboy, but incredibly talented. I was wrong. He was a pretty sophisticated guy, even in his cowboy years. He was at home in the big city of St.Louis. In 1893 he took a load of steers by train to Chicago and attended the World’s fair. He saw great art from masters around the world. He studied work by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Velasquez and the impressionists. He also scrutenized Remington who was in his glory. In Chicago he also saw the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. America was in love with the newly won over west. Tons of money were being spent by the public on shows, dime-novels and paintings, but he was still punching cows and mostly broke. William Neidringhaus was a close friend of Charlie’s dad and came to the rescue. He commissioned Charlie to do twenty paintings, with no deadline.
Inspired by the commission and by the confidence placed in his talent, plus his new found insight into the Old Masters, Impressionism, and Frederick Remington (It is always more meaningful to see original works rather than just good reproductions), Charlie may have returned to Montana ready to give painting another go. He didn’t hire on in the fall …he would try again to make his living with art. He drifted between Helena, Great Falls and Cascade trying to sell his art and finish the commissions. He got depressed and started drinking more heavily, especially after his mother died. Things looked bleak. Then along came Nancy.
Charlie’s first love was Lollie Edagar. After that, in true range lifestyle, his only female companionship were the essential town hookers. I’ve noticed with my wild young friends, that as they approach thirty years of age, their interest in the wild bachelor life seems to wane. I think that is what happened to Charlie also.
Nancy Cooper, or” Mame” as everyone called her, at seventeen was a virtual orphan and very pretty. Her mother had died and her step-dad deserted her in Helena. She was a wild teenager who wound up in Cascade and took a job helping Ben Robert’s wife with her three children. Charlie would visit the Roberts often, especially when he was down and out. Charlie was thirty one and knew the ropes. She was seventeen and was experienced in the ways of the world. The Roberts thought it was a good match. Charlie spent a lot of time in a shack of a studio behind the Roberts house. He awkwardly courted her for a year and his cowboy pals knew he was serious when he gave Nancy his beloved paint horse, Monte. They were close to broke when they married and lived in the tiny so-called studio.
Mame probably had more confidence in Charlie’s artistic future than he had at that time. They moved to Great Falls where there were more art patrons. Charlie had moved down the ladder of wealth by going west, Mame wanted to climb the ladder out of poverty, by eventually taking Charlie east. Charlie’s dad visited them in Great Falls and approved of his son’s wife. He bought them a house in the wealthiest part of town and began promoting his son’s art through business contacts. Soon Charlie had his first exhibition in St.Louis. He got good publicity via the papers. They were enthralled, not only with his art, but with his persona. He wore a red Metis sash, plenty of rings , cowboy boots and hat, and chain-smoked Bull Durham. He won the press over with his stories of his time with Jake Hoover, the awful winter of 1887, and his experience with wild Indians in Alberta.
The new exposure and success thrilled them both. Nancy built Charlie a proper log cabin studio. Money was becoming less of a problem. Charlie really started to produce good works, and a lot of them. Visiting artists from New York became aware of his potential and invited him to visit them. In 1903, Charlie and Mame returned to St.Louis, not only to introduce the new wife to the entire clan, but also to visit the World Exposition and to enter his paintings into a juried show. They then proceeded to New York. Charlie was befriended by Phillip Goodwin and Will Crawford. These guys were professional illustrators and clued Charlie in to his weaknesses and how to improve his art.
From that point on, Charlie’s career took off. Nancy pounded the pavement and, aided by her good looks, convinced publishers that her husband had real talent. Soon Charlie had calendar and book illustration contracts. Major galleries pleaded for exhibitions…and it was all due to Nancy’s drive and ambition. When Frederick Remington, the super star western artist, suddenly died of acute appendicitis, Nancy saw a huge opportunity and exploited it. Charlie became the new super-star. His paintings had exposure everywhere. Montana couldn’t afford the prices but Alberta could. Nancy became aware of the British wealth involved in cattle investments just north of them. Nancy suggested that Charlie do some paintings with the Northwest Mounted police because of their scarlet uniforms and because of the impression it would make on wealthy Englishmen. The first Calgary Stampede opened in 1912 and Charlie exhibited 20 paintings and was a huge success with British Royalty who were visiting as well as the big four cattlemen in Alberta, Pat Burns, A.E.Cross, George Lane and Archy McLean. He was invited to exhibit in London the following year. From that point on it was just one huge success after another right up till 1926 when Charlie died.
Nancy and Charlie were two very different people…opposites attract? He cared nothing for fame and fortune, she was addicted. They worked well as a team. He was emotionally dependent upon her…even to the point of being hen-pecked. She convinced him to stop drinking in 1908 and scared off his old cowboy pals. She dominated his life, yet cared for him and his talent. She could be controlling and manipulative…the ultimate business woman…and made many enemies, yet everyone continued to love Charlie.
They adopted a son who was only seven when Charlie died. Jack became a rebellious teen-ager and distanced himself from his dominating mother. Nancy moved to Santa Barbara after Charlie died and in 1940 she died of a second stroke. Charlie’s will had two sentences, Mame’s was several pages long. I think that says it all!
This is my take on Charlie and Nancy and it’s probably biased. There are several good books on Charlie and several bad ones. John Taliaferro’s,” Charles M.Russell, the life and legend of America’s cowboy artist” and Brian W. Dippie’s, “Charlie Russell Roundup”, are the best. Read these and make up your own mind.