Charles Marion Russell was born in St. Louis, Missouri on March 19, 1864. He was fond of creating pictures of cowboys and Native Americans in his schooldays and of reading stories about the Wild West. Many fur traders and pioneers were passing through Missouri at the time when he was growing up and seeing them increased his interest in Western outdoor life.
Young Charlie Russell learned how to ride horses and moved to Montana at the age of 16, where he was employed on a sheep ranch. Over the next ten years he continued working as a hand on various Montana ranches, making sketches and small paintings during his free time.
He first came to the attention in the art world after the owner of the ranch where Russell was working as a cattle hand sent a letter to the ranch expressing his concern for the cattle after a particularly harsh winter. The ranch foreman was requested to report on the condition of his cattle, but instead he sent a small picture painted by Russell showing the state of the cattle during that winter of 1886-7. This postcard-sized watercolour ended up on display in Helena, Montana, where it generated requests for the artist to paint similar scenes.
Russell’s experiences of ranch work in Montana, and familiarity with the landscape, gave his art authenticity. When his popularity as an artist had started to grow he later painted a bigger version the little picture that had been sent to the ranch owner. This version became one of his best known and most admired paintings.
Russell married Nancy Cooper in 1896 and the following year, after they had moved home together to Great Falls, Montana, she began to work on his behalf in getting his works better known and in establishing a national reputation for Russell as an artist.
The couple started visiting New York in 1903 and from then on Russell was able to develop as an artist and see an improvement in his work. Up until that time he had depended on his own observations in learning how to paint. In New York he was to become part of an artistic community and he learned more about the practical side of art by working alongside some more experienced practitioners of art.
In his own studio, which was built of logs and located next to his home in Great Falls, Russell did not limit his art to painting and sketching. He began to work in several different media, using plaster, clay and fragments of wood to create his unique animal sculptures. Some of his more formal pieces were cast in bronze.
Russell was highly valued as an artist in Montana for representing the traditions of the old West and his romantic depictions of Native American warriors and their women.
When he died on October 23, 1926, C. M. Russell had been living in close contact with the subjects of his paintings for 46 years. It has been estimated that he created about 4,000 works of art. He was a self-taught artist but his authentic way of painting set a new standard in American art.