Charles M. Russell the Romance Maker

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

Looking through the Western Galleries at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, many visitors compare the work of Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell. Quite often the conclusion is something like Remington was a better painter, but Russell knew the frontier better.

When making these assessments, for the most part we’re looking at oil paintings. A new exhibit at the Amon Carter, and its companion at the Sid Richardson Museum in downtown Fort Worth, may lead you to rethink. Russell himself, it turns out, thought he was better at Watercolor.

Speaking on the topic, Dr. Rick Stewart, former director and curator of western paintings and sculpture, said that Russell’s life coincided with the rise of watercolor painting in America. Russell was born in 1864, and the American Watercolor Society began in December of 1866.

He would also live through a period of fascination with the West. The first Western novel was published in 1902. The first Western movie (and the first movie with a plot) “The Great Train Robbery” came in 1903.

The period also saw the rise of the amateur art movement in America and a proliferation of books on watercolor painting. Russell was for the most part self-taught, and by the time he arrived in New York he was already an accomplished watercolorist.

The oil paintings came later, many at the insistence of his wife and business partner Nancy. An oil painting could be sold for many times what a watercolor could bring.

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) Bronc to Breakfast, 1908 Watercolor on paper Montana Historical Society, Mackay Collection X1952.01.06

Still Russell was a prolific watercolor painter in his lifetime. The works are arranged more or less chronologically, and you can get a sense of different influences on Russell, including his marriage and attendance at the 1893 World’s Columbia Exhibition. Russell had several works on display there in the Montana pavilion. Stewart said it was unclear whether Russell paid a visit to the art pavilion, but there were changes to his work in this period.

More than 100 watercolors are on view in the show Romance Maker: The Watercolors of 
Charles M. Russell opening February 11.

About Eric Miller

Eric Miller is co-founder and contributor to Urban Art & Antiques. His website is ericmiller.me

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