Fort Worth Shows Highlight Charles M. Russell as Watercolorist

A Bad One, Charles M. Russell, 1912, Sid Richardson Museum
Pencil, watercolor, and gouache on paper. A cowboy on a bucking horse was one of Russell's favorite subjects.

Two Fort Worth Museums will be displaying watercolors by Charles M. Russell in the coming months. Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell opens at the Amon Carter and Charles M. Russell: Watercolorist opens at the Sid Richardson Museum, both on February 11.

Russell created approximately 3,000 works of art in his lifetime—paintings, watercolors, drawings and sculpture. He turned out roughly 1,100 watercolors; thus, fully one-third of Russell’s artistic output was in the watercolor medium. His watercolors, as well as his mastery of the medium, have never been examined in depth.

“The American watercolor movement—both amateur and professional—came to full fruition during Russell’s formative years as an artist during the 1880s and 1890s,” says Dr. Rick Stewart, curator of the exhibition and former Amon Carter director and curator of western paintings and sculpture. “The rapid rise of watercolor painting actually made it possible for a young, untutored artist like Russell to find his own way, even within the context of an isolated frontier society.”

At age 16, Russell set out from his home in St. Louis for Montana Territory, where he initially gained valuable experience as an apprentice hunter and trapper. Within a few years, he began working as a cowboy on the great open ranges of the Judith Basin and Milk River country. Whether he was working the roundups, night-herding horses and cattle, or watching his fellow punchers breaking broncos, he never stopped sketching the scenes he encountered in the vast, wide-open spaces of Big Sky Country. He visited many Indian encampments as far north as the High River in Alberta, Canada, and learned to converse with American Indians in sign language to acquire knowledge and understanding of their culture. Before long he was famous throughout the territory as “The Cowboy Artist,” and among the Indians he was known as “The Picture Man.” In 1893, after 11 years on the range, Russell gave up cowpunching to devote the rest of his life to making art.

“Initially, Russell had a great concern for historic detail and collected artifacts to be used in his work,” Stewart says. “However, as he grew older and his fame increased, his work began to show more romantic overtones with a heightened sense of nostalgia for the frontier he had known as a young man. He had experienced the West as it had once been, and he lamented its passing. The wilderness was rapidly shrinking, and animals like the grizzly bear and mountain sheep were becoming endangered. He had witnessed the destruction of traditional American Indian life by the white man, and his own way of life as a cowboy on the open range had become a thing of the past. Vivid subjects culled from his own youthful experiences were fused with the power of his artistic imagination to create unforgettable images of the mythic American frontier.”

On the Attack, Charles M. Russell, 1901, Sid Richardson Museum
Watercolor, pencil, and gouache on paper. This watercolor depicts a small group of travelers, possibly miners on their way to one of the Montana gold camps, who have been ambushed by a superior force of mounted Indians and are fleeing for their lives.

“Charlie Russell’s watercolors will help people gain a greater appreciation for his skill as an artist,” says Mary Burke, director of the Sid Richardson Museum. “Although he is well known for his oil paintings, experts on Russell consider his watercolors to be among his finest efforts.”

Of the 16 Russell watercolors in the Richardson Museum’s exhibition, eight are on loan from the Amon Carter Museum, and the following eight rarely exhibited works are part of the Richardson Museum’s permanent collection.

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