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Charlie Russell's Old West

Charlie Russell’s Old West is the story of the American West just before the end of the open range, when buffalo still roamed the land, Native Americans practiced traditional ways, and cowboys drove cattle from Texas to the bountiful Montana high plains.

Charlie Russell’s Old West is also the story of an artistic teenager who left his St. Louis home in 1880 to seek – and fulfill his fantasies in the legendary Montana Territories, and by the time he died in 1926, was the highest paid artist in America.

In Montana, he dressed himself in buckskin and chaps, became known as Kid Russell, and lived a life to match his gear. He apprenticed to a mountain man, worked as a night herder on the big roundups, and roamed with a cowboy spirit of a Huckleberry Finn. And all the time, he drew, painted and sculpted what he witnessed.

He worked as a night wrangler on the Open Range for 11 years, then married a young woman, Nancy Cooper, who managed his affairs, promoted his art, and got him to devote the rest of his life to becoming a professional artist. It was a remarkable partnership, especially for the time, and in seemingly no time, the Russells were showing – and selling -- the cowboy artist’s work in New York and eventually across North America and in Europe.

At first, he had traveled with his art supplies in a sock, but by the time his career reached its zenith in the early 20th Century, and the international art world took notice of ‘the cowboy artist,’ he was working in oils, perched on scaffolding, and painting a monumental mural with a radical Western perspective in the Montana State Capitol.

A self-taught artist, Charlie Russell in many ways was also a journalist and historian. Russell saw Indians put on reservations, buffalo replaced by cattle, horses replaced by cars, open range latticed with fences. He railed against it all, but most importantly, in his art, he memorialized what was lost.

Charlie Russell’s vision was resolutely of a time and place, one he stubbornly held on to in his work and dress until he became an iconic character, especially in Hollywood, where as Peter Bogdanovich explains in the documentary, his paintings became templates for Hollywood Westerns and directors such as Howard Hawks and John Ford.

While he is still fervently known as the cowboy artist, he spent much time with Indians and developed a deeply sympathetic appreciation for their traditional ways and their efforts to preserve their culture against a rapidly developing frontier that was vanishing, both for the cowboys and Indians.

Explore the life and prolific work of the celebrated Western artist whose authentic and vibrant paintings and sculpture helped define a vanishing period of American history, and powerfully influenced the beginning of a new American art form: Hollywood Westerns.

Academy Award-winner J.K. Simmons narrates and Bill Pullman and Kathy Baker voice Charlie and Nancy Russell’s words.

Partnerships

The following institutions are partners in the production:

  • Montana Historical Society
  • C.M. Russell Museum
  • Amon Carter Museum of American Art
  • Gilcrease Museum
  • Denver Art Museum / Petrie Institute of Western American Art
  • Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West (University of Oklahoma)
  • Buffalo Bill Center of the West
  • Sid Richardson Museum
  • National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
  • Autry National Center
  • Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center
  • National Museum of Wildlife Art
  • New Mexico History Museum
  • Special thanks to the William S. Hart Museum for access to the Hart collection of Russell and Remington artwork and the Museum

Actors Lend Their Voices to Tell Charlie's Story

Kathy Baker will voice lines from Nancy Russell’s memoirs, JK Simmons will narrate, Bill Pullman will voice Charlie Russell’s illustrated letters, assorted writings and published stories and Dylan Baker will voice the writings and recollections of C.M. Russell’s protégé Joe De Yong.

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Funders

We would like to express our sincere thanks to these supporters who have made generous contributions to the making of the film:

  • David Orser and Ossie Abrams
  • Joseph Sample
  • Tom Petrie
  • Trevor Rees-Jones
  • Julie Cliffton
  • The Montana Film Office
  • David Leuschen
  • The Greater Montana Foundation
  • AGL Foundation
  • Nancy Thompson Flikkema
  • Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort
  • Jackson Hot Springs Resort
  • The Checota Foundation
  • Davidson Family Foundation
  • Don and Marilyn Murdock
  • Richard Gruber
  • Mary Grande

Western Art and History Scholars

The following individuals will provide scholarship and expertise for the documentary:

  • Brian Dippie, Principal Film Consultant (Charles M Russell: World Painter – Amon Carter Museum 1993)
  • John Taliaferro, Film Consultant (Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America's Cowboy Artist – University of Oklahoma Press 2003)
  • Rick Stewart, former director fo the Amon Carter Museum
  • Peter Hassrick, former director of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and the Georgia O'Keefe museums, and the Petrie Institute at the Denver Art Museum.
  • Joan Carpenter Troccoli, past curator, Gilcrease Museum and Denver Art Museum
  • Byron Price, former director of the Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, and current director of the University of Oklahoma Press and the Charles M. Russell Center of the Study of Western American Art at the University of Oklahoma
  • Robert B. Pickering, Director of Curatorial Affairs & Public programs, Gilcrease Museum
  • Mindy Besaw, former curator, Whitney Western Art Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West
  • Thomas Smith, Director, Petrie Institute of Western American Art in the Denver Art Museum
  • Jennifer Bottomly-O'Looney, Senior Curator, and Kirby Lambert, Program Manager, Montana Historical Society (Montana's Charlie Russell – MHS 2014)
  • Dan Flores, A.B. Hammond chair in Western history at the University of Montana
  • Paul Hutton, History Professor, University of New Mexico, former E.D. of Western Writers of America
  • Don Reeves, McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture, National Cowboy Museum
  • Max Evans, author and screenwriter
  • Kathryn Red Corn, Director Osage Tribal Museum
  • Larry Len Peterson, author
  • Russell Experts including Van Kirke Nelson, Gerald Peters, Thomas Minckler, Tom Nygard and Bob Morgan