|Charles M. Russell
10 x 19 x 12 3/4 inches
Amon Carter Museum
Excerpt from The Metropolitan Museum of Art:
Above: Charles M. Russell (American, 1864–1926). Buffalo Hunt, 1905 (cast 1905). Bronze, 10 x 19 x 12 3/4 in. (25.4 x 48.3 x 32.4 cm). Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas (1962.121)
In 1905, Charles M. Russell—America’s "Cowboy Artist" cast his first bronze sculpture depicting the Plains Indian buffalo hunt. It was a theme he began painting as early as 1890, and one that he would return to throughout his career, producing more than fifty buffalo hunt paintings and sculptures by the time of his death in 1926.
The skill and frequency with which Russell depicted the buffalo hunt belies the artistic challenge posed by the subject, which requires a convincing portrayal of men, horses, and buffalo in a moment of suspended action. Moreover, when Russell arrived in the West—moving from his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, to Montana’s Judith Basin in 1880—the buffalo hunt was a practice of the past, as the herds of North American bison that had once sustained Plains Indian culture were nearly extinct. As a result, Russell never witnessed a buffalo hunt of the type he depicted in his paintings and sculptures.
Pictured in article: Charles M. Russell (American, 1864–1926). Buffalo Hunt [No. 40], 1919. Oil on canvas, 29 1/4 x 47 1/2 in. (74.3 x 120.7 cm). The Petrie Collection
Considering the formal challenges of the theme and the near impossibility of observing a buffalo hunt firsthand, how was Russell able to convey this subject accurately? And why did he return to the buffalo hunt repeatedly throughout his career? For answers, I spoke with Brian W. Dippie, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Victoria, British Columbia, and a contributor to the publication that accompanies The American West in Bronze, 1850–1925. As Brian explained, "When Russell arrived in Montana in the 1880s, bison herds were greatly diminished. He may have seen a lone bison here or there, but he never saw a full-scale hunt. Instead, he had to rely on earlier depictions of the buffalo hunt in art and in literature as sources of inspiration."
Russell was influenced by the buffalo hunt paintings of George Catlin, Titian Ramsay Peale, and Charles Ferdinand Wimar, and he read historical accounts of the hunt, including Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail (1849). He also spoke with older members of the Blackfoot in Montana who had hunted bison herds in their youth. However, as Brian noted, the success of Russell’s imagery depended upon his observational skills: "Russell was a superior student of animal behavior and anatomy, modeling a wide range of western wildlife, from skunks and pack rats to wolves and bison. When he first moved to Montana, he worked as a wrangler and he often sketched and modeled cattle and horses in his spare time. His close observation of life on the frontier lent an air of authenticity to his work and his experiences proved to be critical in shaping his two- and three-dimensional depictions of the buffalo hunt."
Action and motion are also integral components in Russell’s portrayals of the buffalo hunt. "He was able to capture movement and dynamic activity in a way that eludes many other artists," Brian said. "In his early depictions of the theme, such as his Buffalo Hunt of 1905 [reproduced above], Russell focused on the chase, in which hunters on horseback pursue bison as they fly across the composition." Later in the artist’s career, he favored representations of the "surround"—a maneuver in which a herd is encircled by hunters. Russell captured the chaotic, swirling energy of this hunting maneuver in paintings such as Buffalo Hunt [No. 40] and in sculptures such as Meat for Wild Men (both are on display in the Met’s presentation of the exhibition).
Pictured in article: Charles M. Russell (American, 1864–1926). Meat for Wild Men, 1924 (cast 1924). Bronze, 11 1/2 x 37 5/8 x 20 5/8 in. (29.2 x 95.6 x 52.4 cm). The Petrie Collection
"While I love the simplicity of his earlier chase scenes," Brian noted, "the complexity of Meat for Wild Men is quite marvelous. This sculpture can be viewed with great interest from several different angles. You can feel the forceful energy of the herd as it circles and mills, the bison rising above and crashing into one another." In the fall of 1908, Russell traveled to the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana to observe a buffalo roundup, and he returned the following spring to ride with the cowboys assigned to corral the herd. "This experience gave a huge shot in the arm to Russell’s later depictions of the buffalo hunt," Brian explained. "His wife Nancy called the experience a post-graduate course for her husband and it was indeed a refresher course of the first magnitude," he said.
Pictured in article: M.O. Hammond (Canadian, 1876–1934). Russell Painting an Incident of the Buffalo Roundup, May 26, 1909. Photographic print, 5 1/8 x 3 3/4 in. (13 x 9.5 cm). Britzman Collection, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Although inspired by his firsthand experiences, Russell’s representations of the buffalo hunt were not intended to depict contemporary life on the frontier. Instead, the subject was emblematic of the Old West—a purer, bygone era not yet spoiled by western expansion. Brian noted that "the buffalo hunt evokes a lost world, simpler and full of adventure, as Russell aimed to memorialize a way of living that had been destroyed." The artist returned to this theme throughout his career "out of respect for the Plains Indian culture and their way of life that was sustained by the hunt before white pioneers settled in the West," Brian concluded. "The buffalo hunt reflects Russell’s yearning for the West that was lost, for the West that had forever passed."
About the Author
Shannon Vittoria is an Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow in The American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
About this Blog
This blog accompanied the exhibition The American West in Bronze, 1850–1925, on view from December 18, 2013, through April 13, 2014, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Charles M. Russell (American, 1864–1926)
b. March 19, 1864,
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