Interpretation of Charles Russell’s Work

Most art lovers know Charles Marion Russell (1864 – 1926) as the “Cowboy painter”. This nickname is used because he literally created thousands of cowboy and cowboy-related works of art. But he was much more than only a “cowboy painter”. Art historians not only regard him as one of the best painters of cowboy life in the late 1800s but also as an artist who accurately depicted the customs and traditions of the Native Americans in the West at that time.

When interpreting the work of Charles Russell artist from America, there are different views in the art community. Although art lovers and scholars usually agree that his oils, watercolors, and other works of art reflect an intimate knowledge of his subjects, some try to find more “meaning” in the paintings. In contrast, others believe Russel tried to convey how he experienced the “Wild West”.

In this article, we’ll briefly look at Western artist Charles Russell’s career path and then discuss the possible interpretation of his famous works, if any.

Western Artist Charles Russell Career


Charles Marion Russell (1864 – 1926) was born and grew up in Missouri, where from a very young age, he was interested in drawing and making figures from clay. As he grew up, he became increasingly interested in the American West. He was intrigued by the American West and spent hours finding books and magazines with information about the “wild west”. He read everything he could get about the topic.

He wanted to experience life in West America and left home when he was only 16. He started his “Wild West” life by working as a cowpuncher in the Judith Basin area of Montana. Later, he also became a cowboy, but after a while, he left the “Cowboy Life” and resided for some years with Native Americans. He lived for 46 of his 62 years in the American West.

Whether riding as a cowboy or residing with Native Americans, he always created sketches, drawings, and paintings of the environment and people around him. The sketches and drawings later helped him remember details regarding the people, places, and incidents he wanted to depict in his paintings.

In 1896, Russell married Nancy and moved to Great Falls, where they stayed most of their lives. It was from Great Falls that Nancy arranged exhibitions of Russell’s work and made him famous in the United States and London.

When Russell died in 1926, all the children in Great Falls were excused from school on the day of his funeral. The whole community watched the funeral procession. He was one of the few artists who were famous during their lifetime. And until today, art scholars are studying the various aspects of the Western artist Charles Russell.

Charles Russell Artist – Interpretation of Paintings

Although Charles Russell, an artist from America, is known as the “Cowboy painter”, he created many paintings of Native Americans in the “Wild West” as well. His main purpose was to correctly depict both cowboy and Native American life of the time. Most of his works don’t convey “hidden” messages or ask for difficult interpretations. Many art critics agree that his works’ simplicity makes them so sought-after.

If you want to find, apart from the actual subject of the painting, more meaning in his paintings, the best interpretation will be that he wanted to convey the truth about the American West. Generally speaking, although he portrayed cowboy life positively throughout his career, you can never interpret any of his paintings as depicting cowboys as “the good people” versus Native Americans as “the bad people”.

But let’s look at a few cowboy and Native American paintings to see whether we can find (or not find) a more meaningful interpretation. Just remember that there might be more than one interpretation of the same painting.

Cowboy Paintings


When viewing Russell’s cowboy paintings, you must remember that the paintings are not about how he thought cowboys would have reacted in the depicted situations but reflect what he either did himself in the circumstances or what he saw himself.

Russell wanted the viewer to experience the life of a cowboy by viewing his paintings, and in many instances, that’s the only “meaning” of the painting. Take “Meat’s Not Meat Till It’s in the Pan” for instance. It depicts a “normal” incident in cowboy life – a cowboy struggling to get the animal he had killed for food to his camp. Art critics don’t usually add any further interpretation to the painting except that they regard it as a tongue-in-the-cheek comment of Russell on a normal situation. The painting depicts a cowboy who has shot his prey and is now considering how to retrieve his meal-to-be from the outcropping where it has fallen.

Regarding cowgirls, as depicted in “Cowgirl on a Bucking Horse”, for instance, there is most probably also no “deeper meaning”. He just documented that European men and women were used on cattle ranches.

Thus, when you look at the list of Charles Russell paintings to find a copy of a Cowboy painting you want to acquire, choose the one you like and don’t look for one with a “story!”

Native American Paintings


With his Native American paintings, many of his works can be interpreted as homage being paid to the sophisticated culture he encountered when he lived with them for years. His experience of the Native American culture and customs contrasted with the general idea many Americans of that time had of the Native American art and lifestyle.

“Indian Buck” for instance, depicts a Native American man wearing colorful clothes of leather, fabric, and feather, and he carries what seems like a rifle in a handmade leather case. It is a very sympathetic portrayal of a Native American man. Most art historians agree that Russell rendered homage to Native Americans with this painting.

Other Native American paintings, such as “Mandan Warrior” and “The Marriage Ceremony” (“Indian Love Call”), can also be interpreted as works to show that the Native Americans had a well-established culture and custom and were not the “bad people”.

The “Mandane Warrior” watercolor shows a warrior of the Mandan tribe and his horse in full war regalia. Finally, the “Indian Love Call” is a depiction of some of the marriage customs of the Native Americans.


When some art lovers think they know all about Charles Marion Russell, they start to interpret his paintings. But many discovered then that, in most instances, his purpose was only to correctly depict both cowboy and Native American life of the time. Most of his works don’t convey “hidden” messages or ask for difficult interpretations.