No single artist in American history contributed more to the image and identity of the cowboy than Charles Marion Russell. His paintings and sculptures not only defined the cowboy era but also laid out practically all of the iconography for the cowboy and the wild west movies that would later become huge hits on the Hollywood screen.
Charles Russell created over 2,000 paintings of the wild west during his lifetime. The sheer scale, scope, and situations on the American Western frontier were like nothing the European settlers had ever seen. This new feeling of excitement, awe, and potential is very much present in Russell’s art.
Russell painted on many aspects of the harsh yet rewarding life that was the American Wild West. With that being said, his art is remembered and admired most for glorifying cowboys and cowboy life. The following paintings might be some of his most beloved pieces, but they are just the tip of the iceberg regarding his larger body of fantastic artwork.
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Smoke Of A .45
Many American art historians consider Charles Marion Russell to be the premier painter and illustrator on the subject of the American Old West, alongside Frederic Remington. This is partly due to the fact that Russell lived the cowboy lifestyle and painted it. As a result, his artwork includes riveting recreations of cowboy life, including the most glamorous and exciting parts, such as shootouts and horse chases.
His painting titled Smoke Of A .45 is one such painting. It thrillingly depicts all the high-octane action you would expect to see in a shootout from a cowboy movie. However, the painting also has a cinematically poetic quality to it. These are just some reasons why it is regarded as one of the artist’s best pieces.
Another thing that makes this painting somewhat different from the rest of the list of Charles Russell paintings featured here is that there is no clear distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. However, there are some clues and indications that the shootout might have started due to gambling and whiskey.
In Without Knocking
If action and dramatic scenes are your things and are what you think of most when imagining the Wild West, then Charles M. Russell’s paintings are definitely the ones for you. But, as mentioned above, one of the reasons why Charles Russell’s paintings are so authentically real is that he lived the lifestyle he painted.
Russell spent many years in the West and embraced the cowboy way of life. His painting titled In Without Knocking is the perfect example of Russell’s talent as an artist and the wild lawlessness that the West was famous for. Like Smoke Of A .45, this painting also portrays a chaotic scene of a group of cowboys firing their guns recklessly on the street of a pioneer town.
These two paintings, in particular, are the artist’s most highly acclaimed and genre-defining. If you’re a cowboy movie fan and looking for a painting that epitomizes the cowboy spirit, then you can’t go wrong with either one of these famous Charles Marion Russell paintings.
Camp Cook’s Troubles
Another aspect of Russell’s art that stands out, other than the action, is the bright color palette and bold colors surrounding the images. Art historians have stated that these color schemes are meant to be a representation of the optimism and enthusiasm felt in the American West at the time.
As a method of painting, Russell adopted a somewhat cartoonish style to enhance his themes of Romanticism. This unique style for the time has been cited as one of the leading contributors to the invention of the modern-day comic book. Russell’s colorful brushstrokes and dramatic subject matter are reminiscent of a comic book panel or movie poster in many regards.
Camp Cook’s Troubles is an apt example of this, as well as it is one of Russell’s most popular paintings. The overly dramatized scene of a cowboy on horseback kicking over the campfire is straight out of something you’d see in a cowboy movie. However, this scene was so captivating to Russell that he painted another just like it, Bronc To Breakfast. Both are regarded as some of Russell’s finest work.
The Buffalo Hunt
You can’t talk about cowboys of the wild west without mentioning the Native American Indians. Many of Russell’s art featured culture and events from the Native American point of view. Russell even lived with a tribe of Native Americans, learning about their customs and ways of life.
Dozens of the artist’s paintings were dedicated to these mysterious indigenous peoples, and Russell was undoubtedly enamored by them and had tremendous respect for their culture. However, of all artwork commemorating Native American life, none is more exciting or respected than his painting titled The Buffalo Hunt.
It beautifully and passionately embodies everything that the Native American people were admired for. Their bravery, skill, and command over nature are on full display in this incredibly high-paced painting. The painting’s centerpieces see a steadfast Indian warrior sitting on top of a majestic white stallion. He calmly draws his bow and arrow amidst the chaos of the fleeing buffalo herd and readies himself to make the kill for himself and his tribe.
Charles Marion Russell’s breathtaking vision of the Wild West is special. He lived what he painted, and the subject’s intimacy makes his paintings so great. His paintings and sculptures are a fitting tribute to a life spent living like a cowboy and lovingly chronicling the unprecedented period in history that was the Wild West.