Jul 9, 2021 – Cowboys – The Art and Soul of the American West

Cowboy accessories from downtown Bozeman, Montana
A poster of an artist’s presentation of this year’s Livingston Round Up, from downtown gallery in Livingston, Montana.

We spent the better part of July in Montana. Consequently, we got a healthy dose of authentic cowboy culture. The myth of the cowboy that developed in the late 1900s remains strong today, even decades after John Wayne and the Marlboro Man passed away. Think of a cowboy and you’ll likely conjure up words like independent, free, rugged, and manly. The fact is, cattle herding was monotonous and numbing hard work, considered a lowly job on the fringe of society. But somehow cowboys got recast as the epitome of manly courage and rugged independence; men who, in Teddy Roosevelt’s words, “embody the hardy and self-reliant type who possess the manly qualities that are invaluable to a nation”.

For this cowgirl (in nontraditional garb), riding one horse is too easy. Two is better!
Under the big sky of Montana, team roping is one of the competitions we observed at the Livingston Round Up.

As far as the cowboy is an icon of the American West Heritage, Montana is authentic cowboy country with its wild frontier and rugged Rocky Mountains. And it is here where we first experienced the cowboy as an entertainer/athlete and then later as an artist. Neither Vivian nor I had experienced a rodeo before attending the Livingston Round Up (the word rodeo by the way is Spanish for round up). It was the 4th of July and rainstorms had sabotaged much of the day. By the time the rodeo began, clouds had cleared out and a cool crisp Montana evening unfolded. The arena stadium was filled with enthusiastic Montanans, some clearly there to celebrate the red, white and blue, but almost all to celebrate their Montana cowboy heritage.

This calf had just lost the competition against two ropers. What you see here is a trained animal leading, not being led by, a cowboy toward an open gate. Safely inside a pen, the calf will rest among others like it and likely be whisked away to another round up for another evening of competition. Trained as they may be, sometimes the animal does not cooperate. We did see an extremely large bull stubbornly lay down after bucking a rider. An agile and very brave cowboy had to prod it. What does an angry prodded bull do? It charges the prodder. Fortunately, bull and prodder made it safely back to the pen.

That evening under the setting sun of a Big Montana Sky and the bright lights of the arena, Vivian and I sat in the crowded cheap seats. My attendance at an outdoor sporting event is a rare thing, which is more than I can say for Vivian who has never attended one. So, it is of no surprise we both felt totally out of place for that reason and a few others, including being a small minority of hatless persons and most likely the only people who could genuinely claim Miami as home. Expecting a drunken frenzy in the spirit of rugged Montana independence and American patriotism, we pleasantly found ourselves surrounded by the politest strangers we have ever encountered, many of whom watched the rodeo competition with an obvious respect for their cowboy and cowgirl compatriots. Consequently, we caught the cowboy fever and enjoyed the show. More so, we learned a lot about rodeos.

As the cowboys & cowgirls train for the rodeo, so do the animals. We learned bucking horses are trained to buck off their riders and specifically bred for rodeos. This horse, like others is worth thousands of dollars and as a valuable investment, is kept in good health for many years. Same for the bulls. Some go as far as saying they are spoiled animals. On the other hand, I cringed watching these men’s spines get jolted violently back and forth. I could feel their pain as I watched them limp away. By the way, catastrophic injury rate among rodeo contestants is twice that of American football players.
The cowgirls do not compete in most events, such as bronc or bull riding. Here is one of the champion barrel racers which was the only competition we got to see cowgirls compete.

Shortly after that, we left Livingston and came into Great Falls where we parked for a week. While Livingston gave us a dose of cowboy pride, Great Falls offered up the cowboy artist and opened our eyes to Western Art. Great Falls, Montana cannot claim much to attract tourists, but it can proudly claim cowboy artist Charles M Russell. The city on the Missouri River has a significant connection to Lewis & Clark’s Corp of Discovery, so it is steeped in history. But unless you are a history buff, there is not much to see in Great Falls, except a treasure trove of western art thanks to Charles M. Russell.

Charlie Russell built his studio next to his home in Great Falls, Montana. He is pictured here inside it and with one of his bronze sculptures on display at the C.M. Russell Museum.
The cattle skull is a moniker used by Russell in all his paintings, sometimes as an actual part of the scene, but most of the time inked in as part of his signature. It is the inspiration behind the “Russell Skull Society of Artists“.

Art and the cowboy never came together more perfectly than that of C.M. Russell and his paintings and sculptures. Born in 1864, Russell is known as the “original cowboy artist”. Growing up in Missouri, he drew sketches and created clay sculptures of animals, and had a strong interest in the “wild west”. After learning how to ride horses (he was taught on a famous Civil War horse named Great Britain), Charlie left school and went to Montana to work on a sheep farm and eventually on a ranch in the Judith Basin. It is there where Russell learned to be a cowboy and an artist.

Russell was inspired by many artists including Karl Bodmer (1809-93) who etched this drawing of a native warrior. The second drawing is Russell’s attempt to emulate Bodmer. The drawing is amateurish & crude, which makes his later paintings even more extraordinary coming from an informally trained artist.

But Russell was a quick learner. He and wife Nancy took several trips to New York City beginning in 1904. He mentioned a desire to learn how to “lay on color” and got his wish when he visited the studios of several successful New Your artists to watch them work. His piece here titled “The Fireboat” from 1918, clearly illustrates his acuity. Having made friends with many Native Americans, he painted from their perspective as they experienced the coming of the white man. In this painting, they watch from above the steamboats on the Missouri River.

He remained in Montana for the rest of his life, but it was during his time as a cattle herder working for a number of outfits that he began documenting the cowboy life through watercolors. He also spent a great deal of time among the Blood Indians, a part of the Blackfeet nation. From them, he gained knowledge of Native American culture. Both the cowboy culture and Native American culture come through realistically by way of Russell’s vivid and detailed paintings.

Two artists, two friends. On the left is CM Russell, the right OC Seltzer who learned from and was encouraged to pursue his art. They shared a great interest in Montana’s wildlife, landscape and history and often took sketching trips together to wilderness areas such as Glacier National Park.
We learned of a strange and interesting story concerning these two artist friends. This is an OC Seltzer painting titled “Lassoing a Longhorn”. At some point, Seltzer sold the painting, his signature was removed and replaced by a forged Russell signature (bottom left corner). At the time, Russell’s paintings were worth 10 times more than Seltzer’s. Long story short, there was enough evidence for it being a Seltzer original and a couple of lawsuits to boot. I took this photo in the OC Seltzer exhibit with his portrait hanging on the wall behind me, reflecting onto his painting.
Russell’s signature skull was sometimes painted into the scene like in the bottom left corner of this painting titled “Wanderers of the Trackless Way” from 1887. Even with no formal training and before learning to “lay on color”, Russell understood composition with his use of interesting foreground objects.

In 1896, Charlie married his wife Nancy who became his business partner and promoter. Too humble for self-promotion, Russell could attribute much of his fame and success to his wife. As an artist, Russell broke through at a time when interest in the cowboy and American West was great among eastern urban dwellers. Among some of Russell’s collectors were Will Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks as well as fellow artists of the West.

The CM Russell Museum stands on the grounds of the Russell’s homestead where their house and studio remain. Visitors can tour the buildings where everything inside is authentic, like this typewriter used by Nancy as Charlie’s promoter and business partner.

Russell’s remarkable illustrations of life in the Old West became a standard adopted by movies that became known as Westerns. Russell, who died at home in 1926 where he and Nancy resided in Great Falls for many years, produced over 4000 works of art, including oil and watercolor paintings, drawings, and sculptures of various mediums including bronze. On the day of his funeral, schools in Great Falls closed so the children could watch the funeral procession with Russell’s coffin displayed in a glass-sided coach pulled by four black horses (the carriage is on full display at the museum).

The Russell’s must have liked the design of these chairs, or the artist that created them, one is in house and the other in the studio.

Recently, I began downloading magazines through the Miami-Dade Library System to fill some of our “lack of wifi” time while on the road. I was happy to see among the collection a magazine titled “Western Art Collector”. Having been to the C.M. Russell Museum, it piqued my interest. Russell’s legacy permeates the magazine, and his influence is obvious among several contemporary artists’ work. I eagerly perused the pages, enjoying announcements of exhibits with titles like “Vistas, Varmints and Vagabonds” or “The West – A Second Coming”. Western Art has a large following and from what we have seen, it is no surprise to us. Here is a small sample of artwork from other artists (including one of my favorites, Thomas Moran) on display at the CM Russell Museum.

Seeing Russell’s work and other western artists’ work in Montana added a new dimension to our travels out west. Exploring the western wilderness via national parks is priceless but the revelations that come from the art of someone who interprets it as they lived it adds great meaning to our travels. We saw this in New Mexico where Georgia O’Keeffe revealed her intimate connection to the high desert landscapes. And now in Montana, Charles M Russell brought to life the Old West through the art and soul of a cowboy.

Enjoy more photos from our visit to Bozeman, Livingston and Great Falls.

Cowboy art on display in the charming downtown Bozeman.
Bozeman under the big Montana sky.
After dropping Vivian’s sister off at the Bozeman airport at 6:00 am, we wandered downtown Bozeman where the only place open early enough for us to have breakfast was the Western Cafe.
We found Livingston to be irresistibly charming.
Cowboys are not the only inspiration for art in Montana.
And Vivian gave it a go on the Missouri River near Craig, Montana. Notice the tiny specks in the air, that’s a massive trico mayfly hatch.
While in Great Falls, we visited the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center where a festival was going on. Snakes were on display and this is a hognose, completely harmless to humans.
Re-enacters describe life on the Corp of Discovery, including an actual beaver hide skinning demonstration. Not going to show you that, but you can see a dead beaver laying on the table in preparation for the demo. I am holding in my hand the beaver’s foot.

You can read more about how art plays a big role in our travels, including Georgia O’Keeffe, a photographer in a cave, the art of rock n’ roll, and our attraction to quirky, creepy art.

One thought on “Jul 9, 2021 – Cowboys – The Art and Soul of the American West

  1. Your post brought back so many memories. We went to our first rodeo while on this journey (Homestead, FL) and LOVED it as well. WE attempt to visit every rodeo we come across in our travels. We attended a great rodeo in Dickinson, ND and even went and bought some “rodeo-wearin’-clothes” afterwards! We loved the people and the performers. And we fell in love with “Big Sky” Montana and almost bought property there.

    Liked by 1 person

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