Charles M. Russell (1864–1926)
A Doubtful Guest, 1896
Transparent and opaque watercolor over graphite on paper
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection
For the better part of his first two years in the Montana Territory in the early 1880s, Russell lived and worked with Jake Hoover, a skilled trapper, hunter, and erstwhile prospector who took the impressionable teenager under his wing. They lived at Hoover’s cabin on the south fork of the Judith River in the Little Belt Mountains, and Russell worked as a cook, packer, skinner, and general helper. It seems possible that Hoover saw an echo of himself in the young Russell, for he also had come to Montana as a boy of sixteen. For Russell’s part, he found a mentor who personified his ideal hero. Years later he recalled very simply, “This life suited me.” It also gave the budding artist a deep understanding of nature and wildlife. As the two men rode a pack string mile after mile in all kinds of weather, Russell learned every corner of the region he would later depict so vividly in paint. This watercolor is one of many autobiographical works Russell executed in later years to celebrate his youth on the frontier with a genuine mountain man. In this scene, Hoover is shown reaching for his rifle as an Indian warrior steps into the clearing and holds his right arm aloft in a sign of peaceful greeting. Russell shows himself standing with his rifle at the ready, warily anticipating what might come next. He wears the woven “half-breed” sash that would become a characteristic feature of his dress for the rest of his life. Around the two men, Russell has arranged the objects of their camp. Dinner is being prepared near a campfire; a large long-handled pan, propped up to serve as a kind of dutch oven, holds some bannock, or flat bread. Nearby, the carcass of a freshly killed deer awaits skinning and butchering. A pack saddle, carefully laid out, is in the center foreground, while a fresh animal pelt is stretched and staked on the ground to the immediate left.