Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on May 25, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the C.M. Russell Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the C.M. Russell Museum at either this web address or phone number:


"The Fireboat" by Charles M. Russell

by J. Kendall May


(above: Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), The Fireboat, 1918, oil on board, 16 x 25 inches. Gift of Mrs. Wade George in memory of Wade Hampton George)


The Artist's Perspective: Charles M. Russell

In 1903 and 1904, Charlie and Nancy spent a considerable amount of time in New York City. While there, the self-taught artist came into contact with, and befriended many notable artists -- an effort that proved to be a wise investment. Russell had expressed a desire to learn to "lay on color" and "have a chance to study this in some good studio." A comparison of his paintings prior to the visit with those after 1904 indicates that he indeed learned how to "lay on color." Artistically speaking, many scholars consider the paintings from 1904 to roughly 1920 to be his finest pieces. As Brian Dippie notes, After 1903, there was a quantum leap in the overall quality of this work, first in watercolor, then in oil. He could compose a complicated scene, portray furious action convincingly, capture atmospheric effects, fill stillness with feeling (wariness, tension, confidence, pride), and control a range of strong colors to achieve a harmony that was magical. (Dippie, 1988) A comparison with other Russell works dated ca. 1890, reveals this distinctive shift in Russell's use of color and light.

Russell's interest in developing his skills as an artist were paralleled by his wife Nancy's interests in shaping and directing his career. She played a particularly active role in communicating with potential patrons. In a 1924 letter to the President of the Great Northern Railway, Nancy Russell laid down the conditions under which her husband would agree to paint a piece for the company: . . . I will tell you a few things he cannot do -- First: Draw a close-up of any part of a modern train. Second: He cannot draw a pretty girl or people in up-to-date clothing. But he does know and feel the romance of the West of yesterday and knows its people as well as its animals, their lives and the magic that held them here. So anything he might undertake would necessarily be from their side -- that is, the old West would be in the foreground with civilization coming to take its place in the changing of this frontier.

The painting Fireboat exemplifies Nancy Russell's description of her husband's preferences for portraying the old West. The composition is not Russell's invention, but one borrowed from preceding artists who, in many cases, witnessed the ways in which American Indian culture was being impacted. Contrary to many paintings which portray the aftermath of the American Indian's loss of land, Russell's piece depicts an earlier moment as the Indians quietly watch a steamboat plying the Missouri. Although the lack of anger or aggression on the faces of the Indians suggest their puzzlement at this sight, the event is a grim foreshadowing. Russell and other artists from the turn of the century were aware of the real impact of westward expansion. It meant the end of an ages-old way of life for these Indian people. Russell's choice to show the scene from the perspective of the Indians suggests his personal alignment with their plight.


An Illustrator of History

Russell selects an event from history to illustrate in this painting. In 1832, the steamboat Yellow Stone brought the famed artist George Catlin up the Missouri River to begin his groundbreaking work painting and documenting the Indians of the West. The Yellow Stone reached Fort Union and became the first steamboat to navigate the upper Missouri. This was no small feat considering the perilous journey of tree snags (capable of sinking a boat) and the heavy sediment load constantly forming impassable sand bars. Catlin described the Missouri as a cup of chocolate or coffee with sugar and cream stirred into ita mixture everyone said was too thin to plow and too thick to drink.

A year later in 1833, the artist Karl Bodmer also secured passage on the Yellow Stone. That year, the boat would only reach Fort Pierre so Bodmer was obliged to switch to the Assiniboine in order to make it to Fort Union. Russell would have known about these historical voyages of the Yellow Stone. His boyhood sketchbook contains drawings inspired by the works of the two artists and indicates his interest in the event.


The Work: Fireboat

Russell often used horses and detailed hand gestures to help tell his story. There are several examples of this device in Fireboat. Notice the far horse and its implied curiosity about the boat on the river. The rider in the middle signs "fire" to his companion and the rider to the left has his hand on his chin in a pensive gesture. The positioning of this figure brings to mind Rodin's Thinker, a well-known sculpture created in 1882, and makes one wonder whether Russell might have seen some version of it. The story Russell tells in Fireboat is also supported by his dramatic use of color and light at this time. The deep blues and purples are contrasted with their complements, orange and yellow, which creates a visual vibration in the piece. Reflections on the river, piercing rays of sunlight and sharp shadows all indicate his mastery of light. Of particular note is the intricate detail of the shadows cast by the gnarled branches of the juniper bush onto the rocks in the left foreground. All these elements contribute to a dramatic but very still, pensive mood for the painting.


For Further Information:

Dippie, Brian W. "Continuity and Change in Charles M. Russell's Art." Montana: The Magazine of Western History Summer 1988: Vol 38, No. 3.
Hollomann, Clyde. Five Artists of the Old West. New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1965.
Lepley, John G. Packets to Paradise. Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 2001.
Prown, D.P. et al. Discovered Lands Invented Pasts. New Haven: Yale Press, 1992.
Schlissel, Lillian. Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.

About the author

J. Kendall May is the Western History & Culture Program Director at the C.M. Russell Museum.

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

Also see more articles on Western genre art


RL wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Sharon McGowan of the C.M. Russell Museum for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the C. M. Russell Museum in Resource Library.


TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Charles M. Russell: An American Artist  19 minute / 1982 / BARR - "Charles M. Russell (1864-1926) was one of the foremost in documenting the American West. By the time he was 16 he followed his dreams to the mountains and plains of Montana, where he lived the life of a hunter and cowboy. Sketching and modeling were just a hobby for him, but he captured the West exactly as he saw it. Over the next 40 years, Russell created a treasure of American art-a record of the West so rich and personal that it remains as vivid for us today as it was for him at the turn of the century."
Portrait of Charles M. Russell: Preserver of the Old West, A Features paintings and rare photographs of the artist, storyteller, humorist, and cowboy, Charlie Russell (1864-1926). 23-minute video. Description source: Amon Carter Museum Teacher Resource Center

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