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Wanna Be a Cowboy

Charles M. Russell masterworks at the MFAH

The cowboy is the very embodiment of Americans' self-mythology: independent, rugged, hardworking, adventurous. Nineteenth-century dime novels birthed the cowboy myth as we know it. And those romanticized notions were reinforced by "Wild West" shows of the period, in which actual cowboy characters like Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack performed staged extravaganzas re-creating their exploits. Enter Charles M. Russell. Russell grew up on dime novels in St. Louis, Missouri, the "gateway to the west." He hated school and wanted to be a cowboy. When he was 16, his wealthy family sent him out to work on a family friend's ranch in the Montana Territory. They thought he'd get it out of his system. He didn't.

Russell soon left the friend's ranch. He then spent two years hanging out with a hunter/trapper/prospector named Jake Hoover, and another 11 years as a night herder on a cattle range. Russell had always drawn, and he continued to do so as a ranch hand. During the brutal 1886-87 winter, when half the cattle population in the state of Montana died, Russell painted a sketch of an emaciated, starving cow standing in the snow, its back hunched against the cold, wolves waiting patiently nearby. The image succinctly summed up the disaster, and the ranch manager sent it to the owner after he asked how things were going. The painting wound up being displayed in a Helena, Montana, shop window.

That image launched Russell on his art career, and when he married Nancy Cooper in 1896, his wife's shrewd management of his career guaranteed Russell's commercial success. According to Russell, his wife charged "dead man's prices" for his work.

In Without Knocking shows cowboys riding their horses into a hotel.
Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
In Without Knocking shows cowboys riding their horses into a hotel.

Russell's story is fascinating, but his work is decidedly less so. "The Masterworks of Charles M. Russell: A Retrospective of Painting and Sculpture" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is overflowing with ham-fisted painting. Russell's subject matter, rather than his artistic talent, is the driving force behind his popularity. While his early works on paper are surprisingly nice and his illustrated letters are charming, it's when he moves into oil on canvas that things get hokey. Some of the first paintings you see in the exhibition are images of Native Americans.

Waiting and Mad (1899) could have served as cover art for a Western-themed bodice ripper. A Native American woman reclines like an odalisque in her tipi, her dress falling from one shoulder as she stares out, as if waiting for her tardy date. She rests on a decorated buffalo skin; a shield and spears hang decoratively on the wall behind her. A "peace pipe" rests on the floor in the foreground, an oddly casual placement for a ritual implement used for a sacred practice. The woman is basically surrounded by what were probably collected as "souvenirs" by white people. A similar painting, Indian Maid at Stockade (1892), presents a young woman with a lot of cleavage exposed and artfully draped with jewelry and blankets. Undoubtedly, this image has launched countless "western-themed" fashion shoots.

But aside from the exoticizing Russell indulges in, his depiction of Native Americans is fairly empathetic and respectful. Romanticizing the peoples we had pretty much exterminated was a part of turn-of-the-century zeitgeist. He painted numerous images of Native Americans hunting buffalo — dynamic, action-packed scenes that he never actually witnessed. The massive buffalo herds that sustained the Plains peoples had been decimated long before. He painted cowboys coming upon one of their cattle being carved up for food by the starving Native American family who had killed it. The outcome of the meeting is unclear, but Russell's empathy for the family's predicament is evident.

Cowboy Bargaining for an Indian Girl (1895) depicts a fascinating scene, and one that seems like it might have a basis in reality. A Native American man sits in front of a tipi while a bearded cowboy with two horses stands in front of him, gesturing to communicate. A girl, head down, stands to the side of the tipi. Curator Joan Carpenter Troccoli's catalog essay and wall text state, "Although its subject has been described as both a purely venal transaction and as the final chapter in a respectful courtship, the young cowboy and his bride project an innocent appeal that suggests the latter is closer to the mark." That reading seems more than a little disingenuous. The cowboy doesn't look especially young, and the girl looks miserable at the prospect of being sold off. It seems to me that Russell is being unusually frank; I don't understand Troccoli's attempt to sanitize the image.

Maybe unwilling women being bought is a little too frank for some Russell fans. The burgundy-brown walls of the exhibition look like the decorator colors used in the manly offices of rich, right-wing, white guys, and the artist seems to be pretty popular with that demographic. — Fifteen or so years ago, adorning office walls with images of rugged cowboys was de rigueur in certain Texas corporate environments. (Rich, right-wing, white guy Bob McNair is listed as a "generous" funder of the exhibition.)

Above all, Russell was a storyteller, both as a person and as an artist. He knew plenty of characters and plenty of tales. And like any great storyteller, he would exaggerate for effect. The painting In Without Knocking (1909) depicts cowboys riding their horses into a hotel, while The Tenderfoot [No. 1] (1900) shows them harassing a dandy Easterner. Works like Meat's Not Meat Till It's in the Pan (1915) illustrates the difficulties of wilderness life. In a scene on a snowy bluff, a big-horned sheep shot by a hunter has fallen down onto a ledge below. The man takes off his hat and scratches his head in puzzlement.

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