Almost as familiar as the images of the American West he painted and sculpted is the figure of Charles M. Russell himself. Standing or mounted, in boots and wide-brimmed hat, sash knotted at his waist, gaze steady under a hank of unruly hair: he is the one and only “Cowboy Artist.”
What is not so well known is the story that unfolds in the myriad photographs of Russell, pictures that document a remarkable life while also reflecting the evolution of photography and the depiction of the American West at the turn of the 20th century. This biography by Montana native Larry Len Peterson makes use of hundreds of images of Russell, many never before published, to explore the role of photography in shaping the artist’s public image and the making and selling of his art. More than that, the book shows how the Cowboy Artist personified what he portrayed.
Peterson traces Russell’s image and his career from his first adventures, arriving in Helena from St. Louis as a teenager, to his apotheosis as an artist, and then to his California period and his final days as the grand statesman of the American West. Along the way we meet some of the most interesting photographers of the era, as Russell posed for Edward S. Curtis, Roland Reed, Clarence S. Bull, and Dorothea Lange, among others. Because Nancy Russell used photographs to promote her artist husband’s career and artistic identity, we also see the medium’s early application as a marketing tool in the hands of a surprisingly savvy businesswoman.
Alongside Peterson’s engrossing tale of the life of this American icon, the hundreds of photographs of Russell, his friends, family members, business associates, colleagues, and celebrities of his time offer a unique view of the artist’s historic and cultural milieu – a view at once panoramic and intimate.
Peterson, a native of Plentywood, is an acknowledged expert on art and art history of the American West. Brian W. Dippie, who wrote the foreword, is considered the leading authority on Russell.
“Captivating from cover to cover … Highly recommended,” writes Midwest Book Review.