Charles M. Russell Retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston

The Masterworks of Charles M. Russell: A Retrospective of Paintings and Sculpture travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in June 2010, presenting more than 60 major works in oil, bronze, and mixed media by the renowned “cowboy artist” Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), as well as a selection of personal objects that portray the artist in his own words and images.

Charles M. Russell, American, 1864-1926 The Call of the Law 1911 Oil on canvas National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Virtually self-taught, Russell began to paint early in his career as a cowboy, after he left his privileged St. Louis family at sixteen to work as a night wrangler on a ranch in the Montana Territory. Later on, his iconic images would help define the American West in the popular imagination. With first-hand knowledge of cowboys and outlaws, Native Americans, trappers and hunters, and Western wildlife and wilderness, Russell presented an unparalleled view of a bygone American culture, rich in authentic detail and infused with personal passion. By the time of his death, in 1926, Russell had seen the western culture that he loved radically change. Through his animated artworks, however, he became a western legend in his own right and provided endless inspiration to Hollywood´s first filmmakers. Despite being one of the best-known names in American art, this exhibition is the first major retrospective featuring both Russell´s painting and sculptural work.

The Masterworks of Charles M. Russell will be on view at the MFAH from June 6 to August 29, 2010. Houston is the final venue for the American tour, following presentations at the Denver Art Museum´s Petrie Institute of Western American Art and the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Barrymore Laurence Scherer, of The Wall Street Journal, wrote that the Denver presentation of The Masterworks of Charles M. Russell “may just inspire a new appreciation for Western art as a whole.”

“From his legendary paintings of cowboys and Native Americans in rough country to his iconic bronze sculptures of men on horseback, Russell´s gift for storytelling brings our nation´s cultural past to life,” said Dr. Peter C. Marzio, MFAH director. “With its unparalleled holdings of artworks by Frederic Remington, who preceded Russell as the chronicler of the American West, the MFAH is a fitting venue for this dramatic presentation of cowboy and Plains Indian life, and the western landscape.”

“For fans of the country´s western spaces and the dramatic events that have taken place there, this exhibition presents all of the iconic scenes: clashes between outlaws and lawmen, Native Americans on the Plains, buffalo hunts, and the cowboy experience—all set against starkly beautiful western landscapes,” said Dr. Emily Ballew Neff, MFAH curator of American Painting and Sculpture. “More than that,” she added, “visitors will see that Russell was much more than a cowboy artist, but also a profound and witty interpreter of a life he knew well.”

The exhibition opens with the dynamic cowboy paintings for which Russell is best known, and concludes with his dramatic portrayals of wildlife in pristine western settings undisturbed by man. The narrative of the exhibition mirrors Russell´s increasing alienation from modern urban life and growing devotion to pure nature, as Russell saw his beloved frontier transform from an open range into an urbanized and industrialized landscape. It features sections on cowboys, outlaws and lawmen; cultural collisions between Native Americans and whites in the West; Native American life in all its aspects; trappers and hunters; and wildlife and wilderness.

Both the variety of Russell´s subjects and the range of his expression are among the revelations of this exhibition. Russell was known for his detailed depictions of minute elements of cowboy gear and accurate representations of the cowboys´ particular maneuvers, but his concern over the destruction of the people and landscape of the Northern Plains and his tolerance for human differences are untold hallmarks of his work. Russell viewed Native Americans as holding the only truly authentic claim to the American West, and protested the U.S. government´s injustices and public´s indifference to their removal from their ancestral homelands. He visited the reservations often and made friends with members of the tribes, and Russell used his gift for storytelling to document the Native American lifestyle with dignity, from portrayals of strong, capable Native American women inside the camp to mounted warriors moving across the plains. Although he is best known for his cowboys, depictions of Native Americans dominate Russell´s work.

About the Artist
Born in 1864 and raised in St. Louis by a well-to-do family (his father was the owner of Oak Hill Firebrick and Tile Works), as a child Russell enjoyed sketching and modeling animal figurines in wax and clay. He tended to identify with his pioneer relatives — including an uncle who established a major trading post on the Santa Fe Trail and married a Cheyenne woman — rather than the high-society inclinations of his immediate family. He left home with his parents´ reluctant blessing at age sixteen to live in what was then the Montana Territory and work on a sheep ranch. He eventually took a job as a cow hand. While still herding cattle he enjoyed his first taste of fame: for the small, allegorical watercolor Waiting for a Chinook (1886). Painted in response to a cattle owner´s query about how his herd had weathered the devastating winter of 1886-87, Russell expressed his devastation at losing 5,000 steer with an image of an emaciated cow encircled by wolves. The acquaintance shared the postcard with his friends and business associates before displaying it in a shop window, and Russell became an artist in demand soon after. A reprised version of the painting, Last of Five Thousand (Waiting for a Chinook) (1903), will be on view in the exhibition.

Russell´s work dovetailed with a time in American history when all things Western were being consumed in many forms, including magazine articles, novels and Western films that eventually became a movie genre of their own. With no formal artistic training, Russell relied on his powers of observation, discipline and commitment, drawing inspiration from magazine illustrations as well as the work of earlier Western artists, including George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, and his contemporary, Frederic Remington.

In 1896 Russell married Nancy Cooper, an ambitious younger woman who enthusiastically publicized his work, and shortly thereafter moved to a larger city—Great Falls, Montana— where he painted and sculpted in a log cabin next to their house. The couple also adopted a son, Jack, in 1916. Nancy arranged exhibitions for Charles throughout the states and in London, and at home enforced working hours and a two-drink-a-day limit. As nostalgia for the Wild West reached a frenzy, appearing everywhere from dime novels to the new, silent films, Russell´s work was popularly received and collectors included Hollywood directors and stars like Harry Carey, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and Will Rogers. Russell completed approximately 4,000 artworks during his lifetime, and passed away in his Montana home.

Exhibition Catalogue
In addition to revising the concept of Russell as strictly a cowboy artist, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue invite a close look at his development as a painter and sculptor. The Masterworks of Charles M. Russell: A Retrospective of Paintings and Sculpture is edited by exhibition curator Joan Carpenter Troccoli, with a foreword by Denver Art Museum Director Lewis Sharp and Gilcrease Museum Executive Director Duane King.

Public Programs
A cell phone audio tour will be available throughout the exhibition, as well as programs for adults and children. Highlights include:

• Family activities offered throughout the day on Sunday, June 20, and Sunday, July 18, including a Creation Station, Sketching in the Galleries, and a Family Tour.
• A Target Free First Sunday on August 1, Giddy Up! Art of the American West, features the artwork of Charles Russell and offers an assortment of fun activities, from making art and hearing a story to watching performances and family flicks.
• Gallery Conversations offered during the exhibition run. These talks are open to the public, held on Saturday afternoons, and will present an opportunity to expand dialogues, consider different perspectives regarding the art on view in the exhibition, and build relationships with individuals and organizations throughout the Houston community.

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