“Laugh Kills Lonesome.” Oil on Canvas, 1925. C.M. Russell,, Montana Historical Society MacKay Collection, Helena, MT
In 1864, Russell was born in Missouri, far from the Wild West. He came from a wealthy family that owned a manufacturing business, and though his future seemed secure in it, Russell’s interests lay elsewhere. From a young age he had a creative spark and longed for adventure. He would regularly draw, paint, and sculpt works of art and listen to the stories of those who had visited the West. By age thirteen, Russell decided he wanted to see the wild frontier for himself and begged his parents to let him go. Instead, they sent him to military school. This, however, did not dissuade Russell from following his dream, and so his parents allowed him to travel to Montana in 1880, hoping that the rugged Western lifestyle would change his view.
Though his early days in Montana were not without hardships, Russell endured and remained fascinated with the West. While working as a night wrangler for a number of outfits in the Judith Basin, he sketched and painted Western life, often giving these works away to friends.
It wasn’t until 1886 that his talents were truly recognized. That year, a dramatic change in the climate took a heavy toll on ranchers. A dry summer was followed by a harsh winter, leaving cattle in the Judith Basin little to eat. Under these severe conditions, Russell painted a lone, starving cow circled by wolves. The rancher that Russell worked for passed along the image (Waiting for a Chinook), which helped the young cowboy gain recognition as an artist.
Over the next forty years, Russell would become one of the best Western artists of all time. He would live with the Blackfoot tribe in Canada, herd cattle north of the Milk River, and paint his experiences in Great Falls. His artwork would capture everything from the wildlife of the plains to cowboy mischief in Utica. Many artists would rival him in skill, but few could ever depict the Wild West with the same intensity of wonder and adoration that Charlie Russell possessed.