Charles M. Russell, Word Painter

edited byBrian W. Dippie.Amon Carter Museum, distributed by Abrams, 444 pages, $95.00.
In 1864 a fourth child was born to Charles Silas and Mary Elizabeth Russell, of St. Louis, Missouri. The Russells were prosperous—he was the financial manager of a growing mining and manufacturing company—and expected their son to, in the old phrase, make something of himself, presumably through education. Young Charlie proved impervious to schooling, or indeed to anything but the lure of the western frontier. In 1880 his parents gave up and allowed the boy to spend the summer on a sheep ranch in Montana. He never really came back. What he did do, when not night-herding horses and hanging about with cowboys in the local saloon, was draw, paint, and eventually model the action around him, casually giving away his work to anyone who wanted it. People did want it, it became widely known, and by the turn of the century Russell was a successful artist with a national reputation as the great recorder, along with Frederic Remington, of a frontier already become history. Russell never learned to spell, and punctuation remained a mystery to him, but he wrote letters that, reproduced in this handsome tome, are a delight to the eye, because he filled his pages with the sketches that came easily to him instead of with the writing that he professed to find toilsome. His language was as idiosyncratic as his spelling. New York City became “a camp of four millions an I guess I know about eight it makes me fell small...”On that same trip, he reported to “Friend Bill,” “you will notice in the picture belo Iv spent money on harnes but Im going to dress well if it brakes me.” The picture belo is a self-caricature combining polished gentlemen’s fashion of 1903 with western boots, a sagging red sash, and a derby too small for Russell’s solid head. Russell could write eloquently when he wanted to, particularly about the lost world of cattle drives and Indians and open country, and he could be tersely funny. His hand is not always readily decipherable, but the text is usually worth the effort and the illustrations are always a lavish, effortless pleasure. The editorial notes are thorough and helpful.