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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.