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Russell Rides at the Phippen: From the Private Collection of Frederic G. and Ginger K. Renner

May 1 - August 29, 2004


Russell Rides at the Phippen, a private collection of Charles M. Russell's paintings, drawings, sculptures and memorabilia, opens at the Phippen Museum in Prescott on May 1, 2004. The collector, Frederic G. Renner, spent his lifetime researching and collecting Russell's works, and his wife Ginger now generously shares the collection -- one of the largest private collections of Charlie Russell's work -- and her remembrances of her life with Fred.

Russell Rides at the Phippen contains 21 paintings, 20 bronzes, photos, letters and drawings by Charles M. Russell, as well as his signature sash, hat and custom-made high-heeled boots. (right: Charles M. Russell, Meat for the Wagons)

Mrs. Renner said her husband often explained his dedication to the career of Charlie Russell as an accident of birth. "I was born in Great Falls, Montana," he once said, as though this early proximity to the celebrated cowboy artist would be sufficient to explain his 75 years of searching, collecting and recording Russell's extraordinary artistic output.

Actually, Fred Renner's parents were friends of both Charlie and Nancy Russell before the Russells were married in 1896, so Fred was undoubtedly aware of Russell from babyhood. During an era when the men of Great Falls had given up their boots for three-piece suits, Charlie continued to demonstrate his individuality by wearing a multi-colored sash instead of a belt, a Stetson hat, high-heeled boots and several rings on his fingers. He surely made an impression on young Renner.

Renner's first memories, around age five or six, were of Russell's works displayed in many of the businesses along Central Avenue. He was fascinated by the excitement and drama in Russell's paintings and watercolors. When all the other boys his age were collecting baseball cards, Renner saved his nickels to buy Russell postcards, which were published locally by the W.T. Ridgely Co. "These are still a treasured part of the collection," his wife Ginger notes. During his grade school years, Renner used to stop by Russell's log cabin studio on Saturday mornings and quietly watch Charlie at work.

Renner started collecting Charlie Russell's postcards at the age of five. Renner, now deceased, spent his lifetime researching and collecting the works of Russell. His wife Ginger said, "He mortgaged the house in 1938 to buy his first Russell painting."

The Renners own the most extensive archive of Russell's work, cataloging 4,296 pieces of artwork created by Russell over a 48-year period from the age of 14 until his death. "This exhibit represents all aspects of Russell's career -- drawings, illustrated letters, watercolors, oils and bronzes. I think that's what makes the collection as interesting as it is," she continues. "It represents one man's lifetime passion," meaning her late husband, although that could also be said of Russell himself.

"Russell was almost a compulsive creator," Mrs. Renner says. One of her favorite Russell stories illustrates this point. "He was a great raconteur and used to entertain the cowboys at the Mint Saloon in Great Falls with his quick wit and ribald stories," she explains. "He always carried a lump of beeswax around with him. And all the while he talked, with his hands in his pockets or under his hat, he'd be sculpting some little animal or figure. On one of these occasions, Charlie made a little bear. A visiting salesman at the other end of the bar, allegedly asked the bartender who the storyteller was, and the bartender said, 'Why that's our famous artist, Charlie Russell!' The salesman asked how much Charlie wanted for the bear he just made. When Charlie said $10, the salesman said, 'That's way too much money.' So Charlie squashed the bear and went on telling stories."

A contributing factor to the success of Renner's drive to locate and document all of Russell's works was the nature of his profession. For the first 15 years of his career, Renner was stationed in several areas of the West with the Forest Service. Then later, in his position as Chief of the Range Management Division of the Soil Conservation Service, Renner traveled over many states. When he heard about the possibility of a Russell being in a region, he made careful notes so that when his job took him into that area, he would make every effort to meet the owner, get descriptions and, if possible, a photograph of the work of art.

After 1935, Renner was in a position to visit with Nancy Russell in her Pasadena Home; and she shared a great deal of information with Renner about her husband's life and work. When she realized Renner's avocation of collecting Russell material had become more a way of life than a hobby, she gave him many items for his collection, including catalogues of early shows, photographs and postcards.

Ginger Renner said, "Many common interests, ideas and personality traits mark the relationship between Russell and my husband. Foremost among them was an abiding love for the land of the western United States and a deep feeling that the land should not be desecrated by over-population, over grazing or attempted farming on land that had no tolerance for the plow."

"Russell realized very early that much of the broad, beautiful stretches of the high plains country should have been left -- as he said, "as Ma Nature made it," Mrs. Renner continues. "My husband too, through much of his life, felt similarly about the Western lands. Using scientific methods, his professional career was devoted to introducing ideas and procedures that would allow the land to recover from devastating grazing and farming practices."

Both men had sincere and genuine respect for the ranchman and the cowboy. Renner wrote in his foreword to Paper Talk, "Charlie knew that life on the frontier not only required such qualities as honesty, courage and self-reliance. It engendered them in a man. His instincts told him that man was renewed when he lived close to nature." And later, "To Russell, the deliberate destruction of Montana's beautiful grasslands was little short of desecration. He had the perception to know that once the grass was destroyed, desolation would follow. As a conservationist, Russell was many years ahead of his time."

"In the final assessment," Mrs. Renner says, "the two men shared a view of the West that is oddly split. Russell was an incurable Romantic who hated the changes that were taking place on the land he loved. He spent his life perpetuating the drama, color and beauty of that land as it was. My husband, trained in scientific investigation, dedicated himself to un-doing the damage, but found his everlasting inspiration in the images created by the profound talent of a cowboy artist.

About Charles M. Russell

Charlie Russell is considered the great granddaddy of western art. Born in St. Louis in 1864, he was lured to Montana at the age of 16 to join the outfit of a sheep ranch in the Judith River Basin. His next job as a night wrangler gave him time to observe, sketch and document cowboys at work during the day. Russell remained on the frontier working as a cowboy for 11 years before he retired to become a full-time artist. He stayed in Montana for 46 years -- the first "western" artist to live the majority of his life in the West. It was this intimacy with the land and personal knowledge of the culture he loved that enabled him to put such color and life into his art.

James K. Ballinger, Sybil Harrington Director of the Phoenix Art Museum, said in his preface to the book Charles M. Russell: The Frederic G. Renner Collection, "Only an individual whose vision blended documentation, romanticism and the insight of a vanishing culture could create such works of art."

Painting at a time when there was considerable interest in the West, Russell's works were popular because of their narrative subject matter, unique style and dynamic action. Charles M. Russell died in Great Falls, Montana on October 24, 1926.


Editor's note: RLM readers may also enjoy these earlier articles:

Also see more articles on Western genre art


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