Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926)
Property from an Oklahoma Private Collection
Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926)

When Meat Was Plentiful

Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926)
When Meat Was Plentiful
signed and dated 'CMRussell/1902' with artist's skull device (lower left)
watercolor, gouache and charcoal on paper
9 7/8 x 15 in. (25.1 x 38.1 cm.)
Executed in 1902.
M. Knoedler & Co., New York, by 1957.
Mr. and Mrs. Norman B. Woolworth, Winthrop, Maine, and New York, by 1961.
J.N. Bartfield Galleries, New York.
Acquired by the late owner from the above, 1983.
H. McCracken, The Charles M. Russell Book, Garden City, New York, 1957, p. 47, illustrated.
K. Yost, F.G. Renner, A Bibliography of the Published Works of Charles M. Russell, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1971, p. 32.
Brunswick, Maine, Bowdoin College Museum of Fine Arts, American Paintings of the 19th and 20th Centuries from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Norman B. Woolworth, January 29-February 28, 1961.

Lot Essay

The present work has been assigned number CR.PC.310 by the Charles M. Russell Catalogue Raisonné Committee.

Charles Russell arrived in Helena, Montana, in 1880 at the age of sixteen and worked first as a ranch hand before focusing on his artistic talents. Through his intimate knowledge of both cowboys and Native Americans, Russell developed an intense sympathy and respect for the landscape and its inhabitants, especially in his recognition that they embodied a disappearing way of life. Nowhere was his commitment to honoring his Western subjects more evident than in his numerous watercolors, for which he is perhaps most celebrated today.

Created in 1902, When Meat Was Plentiful represents the culmination of years of exploration of the American Bison and the important role these animals played in the lives of the Plains Indian tribes. Russell’s near obsession with the “Buffalo Hunt” subject began in earnest during the 1890s and was likely grounded in his realization that the animal was being pushed to the brink of extinction. By the mid-19th century, trading in Bison products that had begun within native communities as either subsistence, or for gift exchange, had become a purely economic transaction. The massacre of these animals accelerated greatly in the years following the Civil War when railroads made their way into the vast American plains, bringing with them a massive influx of hunters set on taking one of these mythic beasts. The threat to the species was well documented by numerous chroniclers throughout the 19th century, including John James Audubon, who remarked in 1843, “This cannot last. Even now there is a perceptible difference in the size of the herds. Before many years the buffalo, like the Great Auk, will have disappeared; surely this should not be permitted.” (as quoted in E.J. Dolin, Fur, Fortune, and Empire, New York, 2010, p. 303) By the time Russell concentrated on the Bison as subject for his art, those animals that had once roamed North America in populations as large as 30 million had been diminished to numbers closer to 1,000. Fortunately, however, the artist would live to see the protection and broad appreciation of the species, including its representation on the country’s currency in the form of the Buffalo Nickel in 1913. One year later, Russell created one of his most acclaimed pictures--not a buffalo hunt, but a dramatic, exalting portrayal of the animal--titled When the Land Belonged to God (1914, Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana).

A romantic and reverential depiction of both the American Bison and the Native American people, When Meat Was Plentiful epitomizes Russell's mission to celebrate the spirit of the West. The work pays tribute to a species and a culture the artist witnessed in the process of disappearing, preserving its stories for future posterity. Peter Hassrick writes of the impact of such works by Russell, "He had shaped the Western Myth, provided its standards, and given birth to its popularity. His legacy is America's treasure." (Charles M. Russell, New York, 1989, p. 144) Today works such as When Meat Was Plentiful remain as pictorial icons of a bygone time in American history. 

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