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Meet the Women of the Old West

A new exhibit showcases the fierce female subjects of cowboy artist Charles M. Russell’s body of work.

By Marilyn Hawkes

The Old West often conjures up images of raucous mining towns, rickety stagecoaches and weathered cowboys. And while many artists depicted the region as a rugged, masculine environment, Charles M. Russell, the “Father of Western Art,” also conveyed the female perspective in 60 works now on display at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.

The exhibit, “Charles M. Russell: The Women in His Life and Art,” features oil paintings, watercolors, pen-and-ink sketches, illustrated letters and bronze sculptures that span Russell’s career from 1890 until his death in 1926. The collection portrays women in a range of roles, from mother to trailblazer. “It’s a tribute to the women in Russell’s life, which is a unique way of looking at a Western artist,” says Tricia Loscher, assistant museum director of collections, exhibitions and research at Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.

“Lady Buckeroo,” circa 1920–1925, watercolor, pen and ink on paper. The sketch is one of the works by Charles M. Russell that depict women of the West.

This unusual perspective came to light in the 1984 scholarly publication, “Charlie Russell and the Ladies in His Life,” by late Paradise Valley resident Ginger K. Renner, whose pioneering research examined the artist’s penchant for women as subjects. “Russell’s interpretation of women in his art was empathetic, usually sensitive and often complex,” Renner wrote. While his first female muses included his mother, an artist herself, and his paternal grandmother, who had a love of the outdoors, it was his wife, Nancy, who was his driving force, Loscher says, adding, “She negotiated the prices of his artwork and kept him in the market.” Additional inspirations include first love, Laura Edgars, and close friend Josephine Trigg, who helped Russell with calligraphy and often read to him while he worked.

The exhibit’s most compelling pieces show Native American women in scenes from frontier life, something Russell was familiar with as a turn-of-the-20th-century Montana resident. “He saw a real transitional period of native people being forced to reservations, and he depicted this in his paintings,” Loscher explains. Russell showed the women moving their camps, taking care of children, scraping buffalo hides, cutting hair and riding horses. “For the most part, he portrayed native females as leaders and very powerful, which is not necessarily how they are generally depicted,” Loscher adds.

During the course of his career, Russell portrayed women of the Old West in a variety of paintings, sketches and bronze sculptures. Pictured: “Keeoma,” 1898, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society, Mackay Collection, Helena, Montana.

A visit to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis also contributed to the cowboy artist’s creativity. There, he saw artworks, exhibits, performances and dances of cultures from around the world. His interpretations of “exotic” ladies, influenced by Orientalism and Middle Eastern paintings of that time, can also be seen in the museum’s exhibit.

This variety highlights Russell’s great ability to capture the essence of each individual’s spirit. Perhaps Renner said it best in her article: “No other artist in the western American genre has ever produced such a body of work.”

The exhibition “Charles M. Russell: The Women in His Life and Art” runs through April 14, 2019.

The subjects in the collection, which includes both pioneer and Native American females, are depicted as powerful frontier figures. “Life Saver,” 1910, watercolor on paper. Courtesy of C.M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, Montana.


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