Charles Marion Russell: Early Career

Charles Marion Russell: Early Career

Charles Marion Russell was a Western American artist from the United States. In addition to bronze sculptures, he produced more than 2,000 paintings of cowboys, Native Americans, and landscapes depicting the western United States and Alberta, Canada. He was a novelist and storyteller in addition to being referred to as “the cowboy artist.”

One of the foremost western artists, Charles Russell, was born in March 1864 and died on October 24, 1926. He was also fondly referred to as Kid Russell or Charlie Russell. He began creating clay animal sculptures and doodles when he was very young. Additionally, he had a deep fascination with the Old West and would spend hours reading about it while daydreaming of becoming a cowboy when he grew up.

This article will focus on the formative years and early career of the legendary artist Charles Russell and how it was pivotal in helping him create such a lasting legacy. Read on to find out more about Charles Marion Russell’s early life and career.


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Russell had always been interested in the arts. He created clay animal sculptures and drew sketches as a child in Missouri. Russell read for hours about the American frontier since he had such a strong interest in it. Russell used to observe the frequent travelers through Missouri who was explorers and fur dealers.

On “Great Britain,” a famed Civil War horse, Russell received his first lessons at Hazel Dell Farm in Jerseyville, Illinois. Col. William H. Fulkerson, a Russell family-in-law, served as Russell’s tutor. Russell dropped out of school and moved to Montana to work on a sheep ranch when he was sixteen years old.

In the winter of 1882, Russell traveled back to Missouri and Illinois to see his relatives. James Fulkerson, a nine-month younger relative of Russell, agreed to work alongside him on a Montana cattle ranch. But on May 27, 1883, his cousin “died of mountain fever at Billings two weeks after we arrived,” as Russell later recalled.

First Forays Into Painting

By the time he was eighteen years old in 1882, Russell was employed as a cattle laborer. However, Russell’s initial exposure to fame came from a painting inspired by the hard winter of 1886 and 1887. According to legend, Russell was employed at the O-H Ranch in the Judith Basin of Central Montana when the ranch foreman got a letter from the owner wondering how the cattle herd had fared during the winter.

A postcard-sized watercolor that Russell had created of a haggard steer being watched by wolves beneath a gloomy winter sky was provided by the ranch manager in place of a letter. The ranch owner exhibited the postcard in a shop window in Helena, Montana, after showing it to friends and business associates.

After that, the western artist Charles Russell career started to take off. The picture’s title was taken from Russell’s caption on the sketch, “Waiting for a Chinook,” and he later produced a more intricate version of the drawing, one of his most well-known pieces.

Charlie’s Nature and Nancy’s Influence

Charlie was known for being a kind and generous person throughout his life. He frequently gave his artwork to friends and had no idea it could financially support him. He wed Nancy Cooper in 1896, and the following year they went to Great Falls intending to promote Charlie’s art there.

They started looking for commissions back east after discovering that no one was interested in paintings of cowboys and Indians. They quickly started generating a very nice income from her husband’s paintings since Nancy was a great business manager of his artwork.

Russell pursued his full-time painting and sculpture endeavors there, working in a log cabin studio next to their home. The studio was crammed with cowboy gear, tools, weapons, and other western “props” that helped to portray the Old West in detail. His essential paintings would be created here.

Russell quickly rose to fame in his town and finally won the praise of critics worldwide. Most people attribute this to his wife, Nancy, as Russell tended to keep to himself. She set up many of his shows in London and across the United States while working in his studio.

Full-Time Painting

Charlie’s extensive experience as a cowboy gave him the ability to convey Western legends with realism. In addition, the Native Americans and their manner of life were beloved by him. He spent the winter of 1888–1889 in Canada with the Blood Indians.

Russell had become a full-time painter by 1892. He possessed a unique talent for accurately capturing every last detail of objects like moccasin beading patterns and clothing on canvas. He held a solo exhibition in the New York Folsom Gallery in 1911.

A painting he previously sold to the Prince of Wales is currently displayed in Buckingham Palace. Selling for $10,000, it represented the highest price ever paid for a piece of art by a living American artist. Charles Marion Russell was given special recognition in 1925 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Brief on ‘Waiting For a Chinook’ – His First Painting

He was working on the O-H ranch in Judith during the terrible winter of 1886–1887 when the foreman received a letter from the ranch’s owner wondering how the cows fared during the harsh season.

The foreman utilized “Waiting for a Chinook,” a watercolor by “Kid” Russell, to illustrate the narrative rather than using words. A chinook is a warm, dry wind that occasionally blows down the east side of the Rocky Mountains, melting the snow and revealing the grass. “chinook” comes from the Blackfoot Indian word for “snow-eater.”

The picture showed wolves pursuing a haggard steer under a gloomy winter sky. The phrase “The Last of the 5,000” was added. The rancher displayed the ominous drawing to friends and associates from his work. It was eventually put on display in a storefront window in Helena, and soon after that, Charlie started to find regular work as an artist, earning, in his own words, “dead man’s wages.”

As they say, the rest is history.


Charles Russell had an outstanding career as an artist. He was also famed as a storyteller, and it is clear that his experience in the West served as the base for his exploits as an artist. It is worthy of note that he could translate his experience with cowboys and Indians effectively, using his artistic skills. If you want to learn more about Charles Marion Russell or need a list of Charles Russell’s paintings, you check other posts about him on our blog.

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