If you're a fan of Charlie Russell, it's inevitable that one day you'll head to Montana to see the rugged plains and wide horizons made famous in his paintings.
In 1880, Russell heeded the call to "Go West, young man." He left his upper-class home in St. Louis and stepped off a stagecoach in Helena just shy of his 16th birthday.He died in Great Falls in 1926.
In between he had become Montana's artist-in-residence.
Today, Russell is considered one of America's foremost Western artists. Even letters to friends and neighbors on which he scrawled illustrations are valued as works of art. They are in major museums alongside his oils, watercolors and bronze sculptures.
Central Montana, where small towns dot the sun-baked prairie and rocky buttes hover along the horizon, calls itself Russell Country. Here, he made the transition from dude to cowboy.
More important, his life as a cowboy shaped his life as an artist.
He had arrived in Montana at the beginning of the cattle boom. Although farming replaced cattle ranching as the area's major industry, Charlie longed for the days when cattle ranching was king. His paintings reflect that nostalgia.
He wasn't called "the cowboy artist" for nothing.
A driving tour of central Montana will help you discover for yourself why Russell traded his city-slicker shoes for a pair of cowboy boots.
Here, in a nutshell, are some of the sights you should see.
- A Russell pilgrimage centers around Judith Basin where he spent his first Montana years herding sheep (a job he hated) and working as a night wrangler (a job he loved). He never had any formal art training. But during his 11-year-stint as a wrangler, he observed the day-to-day life of a cowboy, lying on his stomach under a wagon and sketching. He carried art supplies in an old sock and a wad of wax in his pocket with which to shape miniature sculptures.
Judith Basin includes the towns of Stanford and Utica.
Utica, the hub of the basin's cattle roundups, and the surrounding area were the inspiration for several of Russell's paintings. One of his first studios was in the corner of a Utica saloon.
Old Town Stanford, established in 1882, was also featured in Russell's work. (The old town is not where the present town is located.)
- The Montana Legislature designated U.S. 87 between Great Falls and Lewistown the "Charles M. Russell Trail." The road cuts through the heart of Judith Basin.
When Russell arrived in 1880, buffalo roamed the basin, a favorite hunting ground of Blackfeet, Crow and Assiniboine. Within a few years the buffalo herds were depleted and the tribes were confined to reservations. Cowboys arrived bringing cattle and sheep.
Soon, the Judith Basin was where cattle, not buffalo, roamed.
Later yet, farming edged out ranching as the area's economic engine. Today, fields of grain stretch to the horizon.
Russell's heart and soul were aligned with the past. Many of his paintings recall the romance of the Old West. His subjects include mountain men, American Indians, homesteaders, cowboys and buffalo.
Having lived with the Blood tribe in Canada for one winter, he sympathized with Indians. Some of his paintings depict American Indians coming face to face with progress.
In "The Fireboat" they overlook the Missouri River watching a steamboat that's hauling supplies from St. Louis. "Trail of the Iron Horse" shows them looking at an empty railroad track.
His portrait of Chief Joseph is a stunning oil on canvas. A section of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail that begins in Oregon and ends 1,170 miles later at the Bears Paw Battlefield near Chinook, Mont., passes through Judith Basin.
In 1877, the Nez Perce who hadn't signed a treaty with the federal government fled the U.S. Army. First they traveled east from Oregon to seek refuge with their allies, the Crow Indians. Having failed, they headed to Canada. The flight took five months. They stopped briefly to trade at the Reed and Bowles Stockade, where Lewistown is now located, then headed north. The cavalry attacked them near the Canadian border. Chief Joseph surrendered saying, "I will fight no more forever."
Russell was not only an artist. He was also a historian. His paintings paid homage to a dying era.
- Buffalo played an important part in Russell's paintings. "Waiting for a Chinook," now on display at the Montana Historical Society in Helena, is a postcard on which Russell, who was working as a wrangler during a severe winter, sketched a starving steer with wolves standing in the background. The postcard was his response to a query from his boss about the condition of his herd. The sketch proves that a picture is worth a thousand words.
- Great Falls, northwest of the Judith Basin, is where Charlie and his wife, Nancy, lived in a two-story house on a quiet residential street. They married in 1896. Charlie was 32 and Nancy was 18. They built the home in 1900 using money from Charlie's mother's estate. Next to the house, out of place and out of time, he constructed a log cabin studio to remind him of the two years he spent trapping and hunting in the mountains with Jake Hoover after he arrived in Montana.
Russell painted in the mornings, then saddled his horse and rode downtown to trade stories with friends in the afternoon.
The block where Charlie and Nancy lived is now the site of the Charles M. Russell Museum Complex. It includes the house, his log cabin studio and the C.M. Russell Museum. The cabin contains his furniture, Indian artifacts and tools of his trade.
The museum's collection includes watercolors, oils, illustrated letters and painted wax models.
The museum's Trigg Room displays letters, paintings and sketches that Russell gave to friends. They include the collection of his neighbors, the Albert Trigg family.
"Christmas Meat" depicts a hunter bringing a deer carcass to a lonely trapper in his snow-shrouded mountain cabin.
Russell's last illustrated Christmas card, mailed by Nancy after his death, says "Here's hoping the worst end of your trail is behind you That Dad Time be your friend from here to the end And sickness nor sorrow don't find you".
The room perhaps represents the spirit of Russell best. He freely gave sketches and paintings to friends.
The Trigg Room is full of those gifts, tokens of his friendship that are now worth a small fortune.
To request a free copy of the C.M. Russell Auto Tour guide, call 1-800-527-5348. The color brochure includes maps and reproductions of his paintings that were inspired by the Judith Basin landscape. You will also receive a free vacation planner with suggested day trips in the area.