Renowned for his dramatic portrayals of the great frontier, Charles Marion Russell depicted life on the Plains in a variety of guises, ranging from scenes of the cowboy, whimsical narratives of life in the West, to majestic depictions of Native American groups striding on horses set against expansive landscapes. After 1890, he began to focus particularly on Native American subjects and instilled works such as Crossing the River with great enthusiasm and reverence. Painted circa 1895, the present work is a triumphant manifestation of the artist's deep respect and intimate knowledge of the Native Americans of the Plains.
Russell arrived in Helena, Montana from St. Louis in 1880 at the age of sixteen to work as a ranch hand. Seeking greater adventure, he quickly moved onto an apprenticeship with a hunter and trapper, and then worked on a cattle ranch as a cowboy. During these years Russell frequently encountered Native Americans and assembled a large collection of Native artifacts including clothing, weapons and daily objects from various tribes. The artist also learned the Native American sign language and maintained life-long friendships with members of several Montana tribes. Through these connections, Russell learned the details of a quickly vanishing way of life.
During the winter of 1888 to 1889, the self-taught artist lived among the Blood Indians on their reservation in Alberta, Canada. This experience had a profound impact on Russell and his work as he gained a deep understanding of the community's history and culture, a knowledge that intensified his sympathy and respect for a way of life that was quickly disappearing. "By the turn of the century, the Indian Wars had ended and the transition to reservation life was in progress throughout the Plains region. As the West of Russell's youth yielded to encroaching civilization, his artistic vision evolved away from stern realism and toward a more romantic style. The image of a single mounted warrior was a format Russell employed frequently and brilliantly manifested his nostalgic sentiments. Throughout his artistic career, he depicted one or more paintings of a lone warrior from every tribe with which he came in contact." (Gerald Peters Gallery, Charles M. Russell: The Artist in His Heyday, 1903-1926, Great Falls, Montana, 1995, p. 40)
Native Americans became an emblem of the vanishing frontier for Russell. "That Indian, symbolizing the Rousseauian natural man, was the single most significant symbol of the West for Russell. He found their way of life far more profound than any of the ephemeral proficiencies of his fellow cowboys, and their traditions represented timeless and universal values that only the arts could preserve. Civilization had crushed the plains culture. Despite the fact that the artist's vocation as a cowboy had indirectly caused the final depletion of the bison, Russell followed a self-enlighten mandate to celebrate and preserve the Indian image as noble. Just as he struggled to humanize the cowboy, he strove to idealize the Indian." (P.H. Hassrick, Charles M. Russell, New York, 1989, p. 50)
In Crossing the River Russell monumentalizes a group of Native Americans driving horses across a river. The powerful twilight image depicts the men and their herd set against a dramatic sweep of water with mountains in the distance. The central figure rides alongside the heard, heroically raising his quirt while gripping his rifle to his side, alluding to the dangers of the West. His tribesmen ride behind him, receding with the pack into the dust-clouded distance.
Crossing the River demonstrates the effects of Russell's experience and innate artistic talent as he captures at once both the finest details and the basic essence of his subject. His superior, self-taught draftsmanship allows him to render the infinite details of the figures' forms and dress, while his fluid brushwork provides the composition with its sense of movement and dramatic tension. The lead rider's blanket, feather and arm band are carefully rendered while both he and the horses in the foreground are solidly modeled and well developed. Russell's sensitive use of color not only improves the accuracy of the image, but his broad use of soft washes contributes to the overall effect of the Western landscape at dusk.
Crossing the River epitomizes Russell's mission of glorifying and preserving the spirit of the West. He captures the Native Americans' collective spirit while paying tribute to a culture and lifestyle that he was witness to and trying to preserve. Peter Hassrick writes of the artist's impact, "He had shaped the Western Mythprovided its standards, and given birth to its popularity. His legacy is America's treasure." (Charles M. Russell, p. 144). Today works such as Crossing the River remain as pictorial icons of a bygone era in American history.
This work is included in the online version of the Charles M. Russell catalogue raisonné.