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A Schoolboy’s Sketchbook

July 2024
4min read

Charles Manon Russell, the famous artist of the American West, came to Montana m 1880 as a boy of sixteen. He lived there the rest of his life, working for a number of years as a cattle wrangler and gradually getting to know with intimacy the men and the country that were to be his great subject during forty-six years of drawing, painting, and sculpting.

It is always interesting to see the early efforts of an artist who later became a master. Below and on the following pages are a few samples, some never before published, of sketches made by Charlie Russell when he was only fifteen. It was later on m that same year, 1880, that he travelled to Montana for the first time. It was decisive: lie put school and the Middle West and East behind him forever.

The boyish sketchbook represented here was lost track of for a long time. It now belongs to Mr. R. D. Warden, of Great Falls, Montana, with whose cooperation we made the accompanying selections, and who also arranged for the publication of the article beginning on this page by Mr. Frederic G. Renner of Washington, D.C., a foremost expert on Russell. Mr. Renner’s article describes how the sketches were authenticated.

—The Editors


I am not absolutely certain of the year, but I believe it was in 1953 that Mr. Otto Veerhoff, proprietor of the Veerhoff Galleries in Washington, D.C., asked me to drop by to see something that he thought would be of considerable interest to me. My first thought was that he might have a Russell drawing or water color for sale, as I knew he was aware of my deep interest in the works of this artist. However, he wouldn’t tell me what it was over the telephone and added to the small mystery with the remark that I would have to see and judge for myself. From this I assumed that what had turned up was probably a painting of a western scene of some kind, possibly unsigned, and that Mr. Veerhoff merely wanted my opinion as to whether or not it might have been done by Russell.

A day or two later I visited the Veerhoff Galleries and had a small portfolio of sketches placed in my hands. The book was old, the covers scuffed, and some of the pages loose. It looked as if it might have originally been intended for an old-fashioned penmanship copybook. Inside were twenty-six full-page pencil drawings of various frontier scenes and characters, all but five of them signed CMR. There were drawings of Indians of several tribes, cowboys, hunters, prospectors, gamblers, and Mexicans. These were certainly the kinds of subjects that Russell might have drawn, and the titles under each one of them gave every appearance of being in Russell’s hand.

However, even a casual examination raised a number of questions. The sketches were exceedingly crude, poorer and more primitive than any of Russell’s drawings that I had ever seen. There were also obvious mistakes in some of them. An Indian pony in one sketch appeared to be wearing a bridle. In another the thong used to guide the animal was around the horse’s nose instead of the lower jaw, and on the left side of the horse’s neck. Whoever had made the drawing had obviously been unaware that Indians usually mounted from the right side, rather than white-man style, from the left. Still another drawing showed three mounted Indian men moving camp with travois, work performed only by the Indian women. Also, the travois poles appeared to be fastened under the riders’ knees, instead of crossed over the ponies’ necks. George Catlin made a similar mistake in one of his drawings, but there were no such errors in the hundreds of examples of Russell’s work with which I was familiar. The three-initial signatures were not in Russell’s usual style and furthermore were all in the lower right corner of the drawings instead of the lower left, where Russell almost invariably signed both his paintings and drawings. Finally, instead of the usual outline of a buffalo skull as a part of the signature, there was a tiny drawing of an Indian moccasin. In spite of these details there was such a feeling of life and originality about the sketches that I asked to take the book home for a few days, where I could examine it more carefully.


I had the portfolio for a week, and before the end of that time 1 was convinced that all of the drawings, crude as they were, had been done by Charles M. Russell and that this had been a boyhood sketchbook. The handwriting of the titles, misspelling and all, was also unquestionably his in my opinion. The word Burlington in flowing script on one page had obviously not been written by Charlie but was significant nevertheless. Charlie’s last formal schooling had been in early 1880 at the age of fifteen when he attended one semester at a military school at Burlington, New Jersey. As his wife, Nancy Cooper Russell, later described his brief stay there: “He was made to walk guard for hours because book study was not in his mind. He would draw Indians, horses, or animals for any boy who would do his arithmetic in exchange.” The old copybook had undoubtedly been Charlie’s sketchbook at that time. The military academy at Burlington has long since passed out of existence, but it would be interesting, indeed, to know what books about Indians had been in the school library. One of Charlie’s drawings, “Crow Indians in Ware Dress,” could only have been inspired by Karl Bodmer’s “Dance Leader of the Hidatsa Dog Society.” Others have a Catlinesque quality that suggests that Charlie must have been familiar with books illustrated by Catlin as well as Bodmcr.

Much as I longed to possess the sketchbook, I couldn’t afford the price being asked for it, and it was returned to the Veerhoff Galleries. I tried to learn something of its history, but about the only information I could elicit was that it had come from a Washington, D.C., family, membcrsof which had known Charlie from his boyhood. Two or three years later I heard that the sketchbook was being offered for sale in Los Angeles, and I eventually learned that it had been purchased by my good friends Robert and Margaret Warden of Great Falls, Montana. So these sketches are now in good hands in Charlie Russell’s country.

Charlie Russell had never seen a Plains Indian, a cowboy, or a grizzly bear in their native habitats when these sketches were executed. Even at this early age they show his intense interest in the many facets of the West. They also reveal, as nothing else could, how far he had to go to perfect his skills; and when compared with his drawings of only a few years later, how well and how fast he progressed. It is these elements that mark the significance of the Warden collection of Russell sketches.


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