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Charles M. Russell (1864–1926)
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Born into an affluent St. Louis family in 1864, Charles M. Russell railed against convention from a young age. Shirking the comforts of home, as a teenager he left his family in Missouri to pursue a western life in Montana. Russell found work on a ranch as a sheepherder before eventually graduating to a wrangler and a cowboy. From the back of a horse he quickly fell in love with the West and sought to capture it on paper or mold in wax. In 1888 one of Russell’s sketches appeared in Harper’s Weekly, the first national exposure for this self-taught cowboy artist. That winter, Russell lived with the Blood Indians in Canada, gaining first-hand knowledge of their way of life. In the following years, his career as an artist took off and his work steadily grew in popularity. Lacking the business where-with-all to make any real money, Russell frequently gave his pieces away to friends and to pay his debts, doing the occasional saloon commission along the way. All of that changed when he married Nancy Cooper in 1896. Nancy possessed the business savvy to match Russell’s artistic talent, and together they made a formidable pair. Russell had a home and studio in Great Falls, Montana, where he worked until his death in 1926, spending his winters in Pasadena, California. There are a number of consistent themes that Russell returned to throughout his career, both on canvas and in bronze. Among the most common subjects in Russell’s work is the buffalo hunt. A major source of food and clothing, the buffalo was prized as the Native American’s greatest resource, the most hunted and also the most venerated prey. In these works, Russell pays homage to a cultural approach far different than the indiscriminate and casual recreational slaughter of the buffalo practiced by settlers. Throughout his career, Russell’s depiction of the buffalo took many forms, from rapid pencil sketches to carefully thought-out oil paintings. For Russell, as for many other western artists, the extinction of the buffalo in the late nineteenth century came to symbolize the poignant passing of the Old West and a treasured way of life. In much the same way that many of his compositions show compassion for the difficulties of the American Indian, Buffalo Hunting is indicative of the artist’s sympathy for these animals that once dominated the Great Plains.