Charlie Russell Paints the Meeting
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"Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flatheads in Ross Hole, September 4, 1805",
by Charles M. Russell.
Reproduced by permission of the Montana Historical Society.
orn in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1864, Charles M. ("Charlie") Russell arrived in Montana as a 16-year-old youth, intent on fulfilling his dream of becoming a real, working cowboy. He was just in time to witness the demise of the "Old West" during the 1880s and 90s — the final slaughter of the great buffalo herds, the destruction of natural grasslands, and the proliferation of plows and barbed wire. What is more, the federal reservation system was firmly in place; traditional Indian ways were gone, though not forgotten.Russell was sensitive to all these changes, but especially to the plight of the Indians. Although he was known as a "cowboy artist," there were more Indians than cowboys among his subjects. He drew or painted thousands of them. He knew Indians, and respected them as individuals and as a people. He spent the winter of 1888 among the Blackfeet on the Blood Reserve in Alberta, Canada.
Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flatheads, painted in 1912, is Russell's largest work. Measuring 25 by 12 feet, it covers an entire wall of the chamber of the House of Representatives in the Montana State Capitol. Despite the artist's reputation for correctness of detail, there are some curious historical anachronisms in it. Clark devoted a few lines to the Indians' manner of dress, but neither he nor any of the other journalists mentioned cloth garments. Yet one of the horsemen in the foreground appears to be wearing a blanket robe, or capote, and cloth leggings or pants. Besides, the two captains and York appear to be much too neat and clean, considering the experiences we know they had just undergone in climbing over the Bitterroot Divide.
But Russell was a gifted visual story-teller, and if we quibble over the facts we might miss the message.