New Exhibit Explores Female Subjects In Western Artist's Work
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Charles M. Russell is one of the better known artists when it comes to forming the image of how people from the U.S. and beyond saw the American West. Over the course of a several decade career, Russell was behind the creation of a couple of thousand paintings and bronze sculptures. They showed settlers, cowboys and Native Americans in a variety of activities. And Russell also spent much of his artistry focused on women. That exhibition at the Museum of the West in Scottsdale goes into that more deeply. It's called “Charles M. Russell: The Women in his Life and Art.” I recently visited the museum and spoke with guest curator Emily Crawford Wilson, who's a curator at the Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana. I started by asking Wilson whether Russell portrayed women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as both traditional and progressive.
EMILY CRAWFORD WILSON: That's correct. He did both. His humor is a big part of his art. And so I think he does poke fun at some of the stereotypes of women of the day in his illustrated letters. One thing that's really important and interesting about his work is that he was friends with a lot of women; women authors that he actually did a lot of illustrations for in books, but also some of these other works appear like “Thoroughman's Home on the Range” portrays friends of his. And so these works that he gave to friends, he's portraying the people there and the people that he saw and knew, but, you know, there's some more allegorical works as well such as “The West that has Passed.” It shows a woman in up-to-date clothing on a bicycle riding away, and there's this Native American dreaming of the days of the buffalo and so it's just, she in the bicycle is representing progress and transportation coming, and sort of the Indian Native man there is forced to just dream about life that was once great. And then you have some portrayals of cowgirls. There's one lady buckaroo. You know he went to the Pendleton roundups and cowgirls were doing the bucking horses and everything so he's portraying what he saw.
GOLDSTEIN: How much did his work at the time influence how people saw women of the West?
WILSON: What's important to understand too, is one, his prints were really widespread. So his works appeared calendars, just prints that people could buy and little booklets. You know, they were bought by offices everywhere throughout the West and you know, commissioned by railroads. I think great portrayals of the West are by American illustrators because these are also appearing on the cover of Harper's Magazine, Saturday Evening Post. You know, so these are widespread, people reading these magazines like crazy and this is what they're thinking of the West. So he was really well-known for his time and he became, after Remington's death in 1909, the ascendant Western illustrator, especially since he lived in the place where he was working and illustrating, so popularity of novels. You know, a lot of these novels are well-read. He did the 1911 commemorative work of Owen Wister’s “The Virginian” that was produced, so illustrations that people are reading these books and are seeing these illustrations of Russell's and his paintings and his print. And another aspect, too, which we can point to is that in the 1920s, he started in the film industry kind of hanging out with film stars and he knew directors Cecil DeMille and John Ford and his protégé Jody Young later worked for them as a consultant. So a lot of times you know they're looking at Russell's paintings to evoke a sense of the West.
GOLDSTEIN: Was there a conscious effort to open people's eyes, not just to the West, but also how women were perceived? You mentioned some of those extremely interesting and different variety of things that he did. Was that something conscious that he did or was this something just that sort of blended in with the art that he believed was worth doing?
WILSON: I think it really ties up into his sense of storytelling. I'm going to say that because he was a very perceptive guy. Like “Mothers Under the Skin” that he painted, it tells a tale of you know how people were treated. How and this sort of white and native different ways they were understanding the world. So in some cases like that, yes he wanted to say something specific. And those are where his social advocacy and political advocacy comes out. In other ways, let's say he painted, next to buffalo hunt that second next theme or major theme he painted was women moving Travois and women moving camp. And I think and of course they portray strong women moving camp, but also, that was also like a theme and a type, and so maybe perhaps that becomes more of painting something beautiful and a type of what he's showing.
GOLDSTEIN: Okay and what is this one we're going to take a look at?
WILSON: This little watercolor is called “Thoroughman's Home on the Range” and it's really special because it shows Bob and Anna Thoroughman, who were friends of his who lived in Cascade Valley area, and it's basically him coming to court Anna and her mom in the background. And so it's kind of humorous. Here the dog is looking at the horse and the man is just sort of looking in scene. And his mother doing the wash and looking at Anna and Anna is you know kind of guilelessly looking over her shoulder. She's hanging laundry and you see the beautiful landscape in the background or Russell and then worked. And I think this is a great image because not only is it kind of a little funny but it shows people that he knew. So it's not just stereotypes. But yeah, there's Anna and she's not this prairie Madonna which a lot of other artists illustrators at the time were showing, you know, moving across the prairies but she is a woman doing laundry. And there's this dirty cowboy coming up trying to say hello to her. You've got the beautiful girls in the foreground that are getting all the attention and the older women in the background kind of being this chaperone type of figure. So this is one of my favorite works in the exhibition — Keeoma. Sort of lounging on the interior of a teepee on a nice buffalo rug with a pipe laid out and, you know, she's wearing this beautiful beaded necklace, has a teepe lounge in the background. She's covered in brass bracelets and beaded moccasins and just has her left arm resting on her shoulder. He's taking what he knows because he did have a great collection of artwork. And you know he was friends with native people to show the details of the bead work and the blankets and the geometric art patterns.
GOLDSTEIN: What strikes me that it's set up that she has to be gazed upon and yet she doesn't look like a weak person; she looks very strong.
WILSON: Yeah, you know that's the sort of dichotomy you know; this tantalizing offer but yet if you're gonna look at her then you're going to look at her, and it's not uncommon in Orientalism to have occasionally a woman who's gazing right back at you, even though she is to be seen as an offering for a man.
GOLDSTEIN: What about the fact that he seemed to go back and forth between Native American subjects and Anglo subjects, we look back at his friends, and?
WILSON: So Russell did a lot more depictions of white women before let's say 1900 or so when he was still on the range and still working. The West hasn't "disappeared" yet. You know around 1900, it switches and white women kind of disappear, and I wouldn't say disappear fully, but they are more relegated to illustrations or personalize works to women friends of his like Josephine Trigg, his neighbor, and native women really had this ascendancy. Here they become sort of paragons of strong mothers and strong leaders. These are the women of America. He actually has this one painting titled “Women of America” and it shows a woman you know leading again Travois packed train and leading the camp. And to me it just and there's a beautiful showing, the landscape of the West and just thinking of America. For him this concept that intertwines Native women and land like this is what the West and America should be. This is what it stands for. White women to him. And you can see this in his illustrated letters are sort of like civilization encroaching.
GOLDSTEIN: That's Emily Crawford Wilson, guest curator of an exhibition at the Museum of the West in Scottsdale called “Charles M. Russell: The Women in his Life and Art.” The exhibition continues through April 14th.