Russell, The Romance Maker
The Amon Carter Museum is exhibiting “Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell,” which is the first comprehensive show to focus on the artist’s seminal position in Americas 19th-century watercolor tradition. There are one hundred of Russell’s paintings from the museum’s own collection and from other public and private collections which document his career.
The Amon Carter Museum has a particularly rich collection of artists who depicted the American West, especially Frederic Remington and the artist who was his greatest rival, Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926).
The works now on view in the Russell exhibition range from sketches and notebook drawings which reveal early crude efforts to document his cowboy life of the 1880’s, through his ultimate mastery of the acqueous medium during the 1890’s and 1900’s. His very last watercolor is also included, “When Cows Were Wild,” which was painted shortly before his death.
When one considers the reputation that Russell had as a cowboy artist, one can wonder how he came to this particular venue. His real background was in sharp contrast to the life he chose to portray. Russell actually grew up in a prosperous urban environment in St. Louis. But his longing for life on the prairies was so strong that he actually worked as a real cowboy for eleven years. During this time he recorded his experience through rather naive sketches which only contrast with the assured draftsmanship of his work during the early 1890’s. This contrast documents the stages of learning for an artist who was really self taught.
This exhibition also illuminates Russell’s innovative approach to watercolor techniques. As it happened Russell’s affinity with watercolor as his preferred medium was parallel with a real surge of interest in the watercolor medium after the Civil War. At that time the commercially manufactured paints and papers were more available for shipment by mail. While at an earlier time, the watercolor medium had been utilized in John James Audubon’s precise ornithologic works, and also by artists such as Asher Durand and George Caleb Bingham, these works in watercolor were still considered subservient to oil painting, until the emergence of Winslow Homer around 1875. Homer became the first American to fully embrace the watercolor medium for its own transparent and opaque qualities, as opposed to adding color to a linear drawing.
Russell experimented with looser brushwork in his backgrounds and foregrounds in his compositions while painting the figures much more tightly. He certainly did not exploit the same kind of color, for instance, which was used by Homer, but he did constantly explore various technical approaches in order to represent the details of his chosen subject matter of cowboy and Indian culture.
A catalog, written by Rick Stewart, the exhibition curator, provides descriptions of the technical approaches utilized by Russell, and also details Russell’s approach as a storyteller.
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