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The Arts Voyager, 2-10: Don't fence him in
Charles M. Russell gets a new look

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), "Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia," 1905. Opaque and transparent watercolor over graphite underdrawing on paper. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. 1961.195.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

FORT WORTH, TX & GREAT FALLS, MT -- While it might have once seemed laudatory to describe Charles M. Russell as "the cowboy artist" -- and perhaps still is in places like Fort Worth, which refers to itself as "cowtown' with pride -- the term needs to be qualified for audiences outside of the West who might use it to dismiss Russell's oeuvre and place him in a quadrant reserved for "folk" art. That this would be a mistake is the most revelatory contribution of Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell, which runs at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth February 11 - May 13 before moving to the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls June 15 - September 15. Much as the more than 100 watercolors from 20 collections on rare display -- their sensitivity to light means watercolors can only be brought out on average one month per year -- serve as an epoch epic of the West, a vivid panorama of both American Indian and American settler and pioneer life and society, they also reveal the depths of craft the self-schooled Russell conjured and developed.

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), "A Doubtful Guest," 1896. Transparent and opaque watercolor over graphite on paper. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. 1961.139. The older white man may be modelled after Jake Hoover, a hunter and trapper with whom the younger Russell apprenticed.

"The body of work on view in this exhibition represents the most memorable watercolors he created during his lifetime, placing him in the upper tier of American watercolorists at the turn of the 20th century," says Rick Stewart, curator of the exhibition and former director of the Amon Carter and curator of its Western paintings and sculpture collection, adding that a third of the more than 3,000 works Russell created during his lifetime (1864 - 1926) were watercolors. "The American watercolor movement -- both amateur and professional -- came to full fruition during Russell's formative years as an artist during the 1880s and 1890s," he elaborated. "The rapid rise of watercolor painting actually made it possible for a young, untutored artist like Russell to find his own way, even within the context of an isolated frontier society." Stewart, a font of Russell (and Western) knowledge both essential and ephemeral, and author of the new book "Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell," explained at a press preview Tuesday that isolated as it may have been, the advance of commerce that followed the pioneers made it easier than one might have presumed to find paint supplies and even fine paper; most towns had a pharmacy, and most pharmacies carried art supplies. And if Russell ran out, he'd use what was available, sometimes drawing on an animal bone and even letting his nails grow long so he could fashion wax figures with them, often doing so clandestinely in his pockets before offering the results to delighted children. Russell also used his hand to shape paints, seen for example in the miniscule dots on the chief Indian subject's pipe in "The Storyteller." (Magnifying glasses provided to visitors by the Amon Carter make it possible to see beyond the immediate poster quality of many of the works to the intricate detail work which creates the effect.)

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), "When Sioux and Blackfeet Meet," 1903. Watercolor and opaque watercolor on paper. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Besides inventing innovative techniques to depict his subjects, Russell shared one other trait with his European counterparts from the Barbizon School and the Impressionists: Proximity to his source. For the Europeans, this meant painting in plein air. For Russell, this meant preceding his artistic career with an apprenticeship as a cow-puncher, a metier which let him witness first-hand the closing days of the American frontier. (One of the watercolors in the exhibition, the 1896 "A Doubtful Guest," most likely shows the young Russell at work with his mentor, the hunter and trapper Jake Hoover, as does the 1905 "When I Was a Kid," just given to the C.M. Russell by the Estates and Families of Ginger K. and Frederic G. Renner.) Thus while his oeuvre includes enough shoot-'em-ups to thrill any youngster worshipping at the altar of the 'Wild West,' it also includes poignant depictions of families struggling to make the long wagon trek to better chances out West (as often as not hauled not by horses but by oxen, more suited to long journeys over rugged terrain), the Lewis and Clark expedition (fitting to Great Falls, where the pair of explorer-charters, guided by the Indian scout Sacagawea, first saw the mighty Missouri), wild cows, buffalo, and plenty of encounters between white man and Indian, Indian and Indian, and tableaux that explore Indian life at depth, including their particular costumes and the devices they used to move their villages.

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), "Last Chance or Bust," 1900. Watercolor on paper. C. M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, Montana, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Stephenson.

For if Stewart is correct in noting how Western films -- and thus our images of the West -- trace their lineage back to Russell and his peer Frederic Remington, whose work directly inspired the makers of the first cowboy flicks, they seem to have ignored his honest portrayals of Indian life, accurate down to pinpoint details like signs on horses and Indian sign language, which Russell mastered. Here the term "Romance Maker" doesn't really do Russell justice, as his scenes of Indian life are more realistic than romantic, and there are plenty of them in the exhibition.

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), "Watching for the Smoke Signal," 1907. Transparent and opaque watercolor over graphite underdrawing on paper. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas 1961.172.

Catch the exhibition at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls and you can further augment your understanding of both the bison and the Indian with the museum's newest exhibition, with the better part of a whole floor devoted to "The Bison: American Icon, Heart of Plains Indian Culture," which offers over 1000 objects, including colorful, intricately crafted Northern Plains Indian artifacts such as clothing, regalia, tools, and weapons, a wide variety of objects crafted from bison, and works of art. The exhibition explores the crucial historical and cultural role of the buffalo for all people in the Northern Plains between 1800 and 2008. And it doesn't gloss over the buffalo population's decimation by the white man. And that's not all: Right outside the museum, visitors can actually step into Russell's actual log cabin studio. How's that for authentic?

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926). "The Upper Missouri in 1840," 1902. Watercolor on paper. C. M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, Montana, Trigg Collection .

At the Amon Carter, the context is both cowboys and culture. The exhibition opens just a week after the oldest extant indoor rodeo and stock show closed at the neighboring Will Rogers Center; it's not uncommon to see contemporary cowboys and cowgirls, complete with spurs, take a break from a livestock auction or cutting horse competition at the Rogers to meander over to check the art at the Amon Carter. There they'll find Russell and Remington in the company not just of each other but their peers across the modern and even not so modern art spectrum, from American Impressionist Mary Cassatt, whose 1878-79 "Woman Standing, Holding a Fan," one of only two known canvases painted by the artist almost entirely in the medium of distemper, was recently acquired by the museum, to leading abstract expressionist painter (and president of the artist's union) Stuart Davis, a special focus of the museum, to contemporary San Francisco sculptor Ruth Asawa, whose 1965 prints based on nature the museum will feature from March 13 to September 16, 2012. And it all began when Amon Carter, a renaissance man of a wildcat oil driller, businessman, and newspaperman, established the museum with his vast Russell and Remington collection, which itself started when a certain friend named Will Rogers urged Carter to buy his first Russells. The Russells and Remingtons became the basis for the museum.

The origins of the individual watercolors themselves were one of the focuses of Jodie Utter, the museum's conservator of works on paper, who used ultra-violet light and other techniques to unearth the original colors of some of the work, before light got to it. In one case, smoke simply disappeared. Check out this exhibition before it does.

"Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell" runs February 11 - May 13 at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, and June 15 - September 15 at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls. The Amon Carter -- where admission is always free -- is also offering several free related programs, including a lecture by curator Rick Stewart, "Charlie Goes to Hollywood: Making Myth on the Celluloid Trail," February 23; a 'Wild West Double Feature' of "Rango" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" March 24; and an adult workshop in watercolor with conservator Jodie Utter, May 5. Advance registration is required, at 817-989-5030 or by e-mail here.
Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), "Bronc to Breakfast, 1908." Watercolor on paper. Montana Historical Society, Mackay Collection. X1952.01.06.

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), "When Cows Were Wild," 1926. Watercolor on paper. Montana Historical Society, Col. Wallis Huidekoper Collection, Gift of Colonel Wallis Huidekoper. X1952.02.02. Russell's last watercolor, its exhibition in at the Amon Carter is the first time the piece has left the state of Montana.

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), "His Wealth," ca. 1910. Graphite, transparent watercolor and gouache on paper. Courtesy Sid Richardson Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

Charles M. Russell, "When I Was a Kid," 1905. Watercolor, 13 1/2 x 10 1/2." Courtesy C.M. Russell Museum. Gift of the Estates and Families of Ginger K. and Frederic G. Renner. (This watercolor is not part of the exhibition; the gift was just announced by the C.M. Russell Museum.)

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