Charles Marion Russell's work reflects all aspects of late nineteenth-century western life, particularly the experiences of cowboys, emigrants and Native Americans. Born in St. Louis, Russell grew up reading James Fenimore Cooper's novels of the frontier and dime store westerns, all the while dreaming of living the life of a cowboy. When Russell was fifteen, his parents, frustrated by the boy's poor academic record and frequent truancy, arranged a trip to Montana, hoping that a summer out West would instill direction and discipline in their son. Much to his parents' disappointment, however, Russell never returned home. He had arrived in Montana immediately following the great western cattle boom and soon found work, first as a horse wrangler, then as a cowboy.
While in Montana, Russell frequently encountered local Indians whose territories were forcibly receding as a result of the growing cattle business and became friendly with various members of the Blackfeet, Arapaho, Kootenai and Crow tribes. In 1888, Russell spent time living with the Bloods, now known as the Kainai Nation. He made close friendships and hunted with its tribesmen, learning their language, legends, and customs, including the meaning of their symbols and emblems, which he used in his paintings. He became close to the chief, Sleeping Thunder, who tried to persuade Russell to marry one of the Indian women. In later years, the artist continued to focus on Native American culture in his work and made annual trips to Indian festivals, determined to continue to portray their way of life.
Peter Hassrick writes, "Of the recurrent themes in Russell's oeuvre, none was more thoroughly explored than the buffalo hunt. Except for a few early works in which Anglo hide hunters were portrayed in the methodical decimation of the herds, buffalo hunting for Russell was generally a grand enterprise reserved for the pre-reservation Indian. That Indian, symbolizing the Rousseauian natural man, was the single most significant symbol of the West for Russell. Such traditions as the buffalo hunt were far more profound than any of the ephemeral proficiencies of his fellow cowboys, and these traditions represented timeless and universal values that only the arts could preserve. Civilization had crushed the plains cultures. Despite the fact that the artist's vocation as a cowboy had indirectly caused the final depletion of the bison, Russell followed a self-enlightened mandate to celebrate and preserve the Indian image as noble. Just as he struggled to humanize the cowboy, he strove to idealize the Indian" (Charles M. Russell, p. 50).
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