The buffalo bull’s head crafted by cowboy artist Charlie Russell is a Montana symbol that has become more visible this year with the sesquicentennial of Russell’s birth. He would have been 150 on March 19.
By all accounts Charlie was, as his adopted son Jack described him, “kind and gentle.” Charlie’s wife Nancy, described as “money minded”, kept Charlie on task in his creative work, and was a hard bargainer in marketing it.
This contrast is illustrated by a legend handed down in Montana’s Mackay family extending back to the 1912 sale of a painting to family patriarch Malcom Mackay. According to the story, Malcom Mackay and Charlie agreed that the artist would do a painting of a cattle round-up for the price of $1,000. Nancy then intervened, insisting that the price be $1,800. Mackay reluctantly agreed, on condition that the Mackay brand be added to a prominent steer in the painting. “The Round Up” was later generously provided along with other Russell masterpieces by the Mackay family to the Montana Historical Society in Helena.
Historical Society records contain no correspondence of a prior agreement between Russell and Mackay, but confirm that Nancy rejected $1,000, demanded $1,800, and that Mackay ended up paying her price and not the lesser one.
The combination of Charlie and Nancy Russell was a winning one. Possessing almost nothing when married in 1896, in 1903 they acquired a spacious home in a fashionable part of Great Falls, and soon built a rustic log studio, designed by Charlie, next door.
Lake McDonald lodge
In 1905 the Russells acquired choice property near Lake McDonald in what would become Glacier Park where they and many friends spent most of 20 summers at their beloved Bull Head Lodge. Here, too, Charlie added a studio, this time including a sky window to enable him to paint in natural lighting.
While much is known of Charlie’s congenial nature and story telling ability, and Nancy’s firm resourcefulness, almost nothing is known about the existence of their son.
Jack Russell was adopted by the childless couple in 1916 when Charlie was 52. His famous illustrated notes to his friends are filled with joy at the arrival of the infant, and his praise of the boy continued for a decade. It stopped then, because Charlie died when Jack was only 10.
While Nancy continued to return to Bull Head Lodge after Charlie’s death, she left Great Falls, and relocated in California to an imposing adobe style structure that she named “Trails End.” While the most she received for a single painting during Charlie’s lifetime was $10,000, the value of his over 2,000 oils, and watercolors, and reproducible bronze castings steadily increased, and she comfortably survived the depression years.
Not so, son Jack. Resentful of being sent to boarding schools so his mother could travel to promote his father’s art, Jack became troubled and troublesome. Nancy interpreted his behavior as ingratitude. In a quarrel over a painting, their estrangement became complete. At the time of her death in 1940 she left him no art and a meager monthly stipend of $100.
Charlie Russell’s adopted state fared better in his legacy than his adopted son. Russell paintings now sell for upwards of $5 million. The Mackay collection along with other Russell art now on exhibit at the Historical Society in Helena, and art at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, and Russell pieces at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings are permanent reminders of the priceless legacy Russell left us.