The NCWHM was founded in 1955 as the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Museum with a focus on honoring the cowboy. Today the museum is a smorgasbord of history, culture and fine art. The museum has over 200,000 square feet of display space with twelve galleries including a replica of a western frontier town and a significant collection of firearms in addition to cowboy and Native American art and artifacts. https://nationalcowboymuseum.org/all-galleries/
This post will focus on three painters whose works are in the museum collection, and are well known for their depiction of western life and Native Americans.
Federic Sackrider Remington (1861 – 1909) is undoubtedly one of the most widely recognized artists of the Old American West. As with many of his compatriots, Remington was an Easterner sent to the West to create illustrations for books and magazines which were focused on the romantized West of cowboys and indians.
Unlike many of his fellow artists, he lived in the West for a period of time, owning a ranch and a saloon at different times (neither of which was successful). Remington’s start as a professional artist was actually the bartering of drawings to pay some of his debtors during the period of time he owned the saloon.
While he had very little formal art training, Remington became highly proficient at drawing cowboys, indians and cavalry officers (who paid him handsomely for portraits in uniform). He was quoted as saying “Cowboys are cash with me”.
Remington became quite successful financially, moving back East and taking up residence in a large mansion he had built for his family. Unfortunately for him, he adopted an oppulent life style and essentially ate and drank his way to an early death due to complications from his immense size.
Charles Marion Russell (1864 – 1926) was born in Saint Louis, but from an early age was enamored of the West; by the age of 16 had left home to work as a ranch hand in Montana. He made Montana his home for the rest of his life, marrying Nancy Cooper and building a home in Great Falls.
Russell had no formal art training. He drew scenes from his life on the ranch as a way to record his experiences. “Between the pen and the brush there is little difference but I believe the man that makes word pictures is the greater.” —- Charles Marion Russell
Russell’s wife was influential in marketing his sketches, painting and drawings – as his work became popular he devoted himself full time to his artistic endeavors. By that time, he had spent eleven years ranching and had even lived for a time with a Native American tribe. His first hand knowledge of the West provided him with the ability to portray the West in a manner that other artists could not achieve. It is no wonder that Charlie (as he was known by his friends) is considered America’s true Cowboy Artist.
Russell is considered by many to be an early conservationist. ”A pioneer is a man who turned all the grass upside down, strung bob-wire over the dust that was left, poisoned the water, cut down the trees, killed the Indian who owned the land and called it progress.” —- Charles Marion Russell
As an acknowledgement of his recognition of the need to preserve the environment, a 1.1 million acre national wildlife refuge stretching along a remote portion of the Missouri River in Montana bears his name. We visited the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge during the summmer of 2021 as part of OTR 6.0 ( see post – Montana Prairie…Sun, Heat, Wind and Beauty). The land within the refuge is much the same as it was during Russell’s lifetime. See photographs below. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Charles_M_Russell/about.html
Russell had great respect and admiration for the Native Americans of the Plains and their way of life. Of the 4000 works that he completed during his career, 1700 featured Native Americans as the subject of the work.
“The Red man was the true American. They have almost all gone, but will never be forgotten. The history of how they fought for their country is written in blood, a stain that time cannot grind out. Their God was the Sun, their church all out doors. Their only book was nature and they knew all the pages.” —- Charles M.Russell
Walter Ufer (1876-1936) was born in Germany in 1876, although he spent most of his youth in Louisville, Kentucky where there was a sizable German immigrant population. Unlike Remington and Russell, Ufer was a trained painter, having returned to Germany to study at the Royal Academy in Dresden. He returned to the United States and began work as a Commercial Artist before returning again to Germany to study in Munich.
In 1914, the mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison and his business partner, Oscar Meyer (yes, that Oscar Meyer), both admirers of Ufer’s work, helped finance a visit to Taos to provide Ufer with new environment to continue his development as an artist (and, of course, sell his paintings back in chicago).
The brilliant light, landscapes and Native American culture of New Mexico captivated Ufer. Ufer very quickly abandoned working in the studio and began working outdoors in order to capture the brilliant light of the southwest and the daily activites of Native Americans and Hispanos.
Ufer’s depictions of the Taos Pueblo Indians were rarely romanticized. He was a committed socialist and soon came to believe that the Euro-American settlers were largely responsible for the destruction of Native American culture and identity that had occurred in America.
“The Indian has lost his race pride, he wants only to be an American. Our civilization has terrific power. We don’t feel it, but that man out there in the mountains feels it, and he cannot cope with such pressure.” —- Walter Ufer
Ufer realized both critical and commercial success from his depictions of Native Americans and the southwestern landscape. The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression were diasterous for Ufer. The public fascination with art depicting Indians and the West diminished significantly as the financial crisis deepened and endured.
Sadly, as the sale of his work evaporated and his financial burdens mounted he turned to alcohol. He died in 1936 at the age of 60 as the result of a ruptured appendix.
At one time, the images of the West that were shared via the work of these three artists and others were viewed as illustrative of how the white man won the West and conquered the savage tribes of Indians. The winning of the West was considered a noble and necessary precursor to American greatness – our Manifest Destiny.
None other than Theodore Roosevelt said it is “our manifest destiny to swallow up the land of all adjoining nations who were too weak to withstand us.” Many of the Western artists were, as such, unwitting propagandists for the conquering of the West through their depiction of Native Americans as savages who murdered innocent white settlers. Today it is commonly acknowledged that Native Americans were in fact fighting to remain on their sacred lands and maintain their way of life.
This post is not about villifying the featured artists – they painted the West as they saw and experienced it. Both Russell and Ufer were sympathetic to the plight of the Native American and Hispano peoples. Neither is the post meant to be critical of the museum – the NCWHM is a wonderful museum and we highly recommend a visit when your travels take you to Oklahoma City.
This is the final post from OTR 7.0. We will back on the road in early March. Be seeing you!