This work is numbered CR.PC.452 in the online catalogue raisonné of the artist's work at www.russellraisonne.com.
Charles Marion Russell first traveled to the West in 1880 when his family sent him on a trip to Montana for his sixteenth birthday. In coming to and ultimately settling in this new territory, Russell selected a lifestyle that varied markedly from the privileged world into which he had been born in St. Louis. While his parents viewed the trip as an opportunity to motivate their son and his academic pursuits, Russell saw it as a chance to fulfill his dream of associating with the burgeoning frontier. His arrival coincided with the western cattle boom and after a two year apprenticeship Russell was working as a horse wrangler on the drives. According to Peter Hassrick, "The earliest Montana remembrances of Charlie were of a boy known as a 'Kid Russell,' who, along with being rough and ready, was known to carry art supplies in an old sock and who impressed associates and passersby with his abilities at painting and sculpture" (Charles Russell, 1989, p. 21). Russell decided in 1893 to leave the cowboy life behind and pursue a full-time career as an artist, eventually earning the reputation as "The Cowboy Artist."
While in Montana, Russell frequently confronted local Indians whose territories were receding as a result of the cattle business, railroads, and the increasing numbers of settlers. Russell, who was sympathetic to the fate of the native Indian, had developed a deep understanding of their way of life, which he sought to capture in his work. As noted by art historian Arthur Hoeber, "[Russell] paints the West that has passed from an intimate personal knowledge of it; for he was there in the midst of it all, and he has the tang of its spirit in his blood. He has recorded something of the earlier days in the life of that country, of its people, of their curious ways and occupations, a life that has practically passed" (Peter Hassrick, Charles M. Russell, 1989, p. 101).
By the time Russell painted Watching the Iron Horse in 1902, he was reaching the peak of his technical skill. In this affectionate view of a time gone by, a group of five mounted Indians are perched atop an outcropping that affords them a clear vantage point over the plains below. In the distance is a train, likely on the Northern Pacific Railway, which draws the gaze of the Indians who contemplate the perplexing signs of encroachment that would profoundly impact their traditional way of life.
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