Charles M. Russell (1864–1926)
A Mandan Village, ca. 1922
Ink and graphite on paper mounted on paper
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection
In the early 1920s a group of Charles M. Russell’s closest friends in Great Falls, Montana, were partners in the Montana Newspaper Association, a venture that published advertising supplements in the state’s daily newspapers. They hit upon the idea to publish a series of entertaining stories chronicling the history of the Old West, and they prevailed on Russell to provide pen-and-ink illustrations for each one. These stories appeared nearly every Sunday for a year, from March 5, 1922, through February 18, 1923. Nearly all of Montana’s 170 newspapers carried this popular series. For his part, Russell was glad to participate; he loved the history of the American West, avidly reading many books on the subject. Today these wonderfully narrative drawings stand apart from the articles they once accompanied. The original ink drawing pictured here was originally in the estate of the artist’s widow, Nancy C. Russell. It is part of a group that constitutes the largest selection of them to be found anywhere—almost half the number that the artist eventually produced for the series. In each of them, Russell’s fluid and dextrous lines create a vivid picture of truly historic events—elevating them to the power of epic and myth. Early explorers described the Mandan Indians as one of the few agricultural tribes with semipermanent villages. These were sometimes situated for defense atop steep banks above a river bed, the earth lodges clustered and protected by a stout picketed enclosure. Russell himself never saw a Mandan village like this, situated on the upper Missouri River, for the tribe was all but extinguished by successive outbreaks of disease before the artist was born. Instead, he relied on the work of an important predecessor, the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, who wintered near the Mandan villages in 1833–34. Russell’s scene here appears to be a variation on Bodmer’s depiction, but reversed. Russell has placed the decorated shrine poles along the palisade, but to be accurate they should be located in the center of the village. The robe on the figure in the foreground is a Lakota “box and border” robe, very similar to a woman’s dress that Bodmer also represented in one of his published prints.