Charles M. Russell (1864–1926)
Lost in a Snowstorm -- We Are Friends, 1888
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection
The winter of 1886–87, one of the most severe on record, broke the back of the Montana range cattle industry. Early snows, followed by a brief spell of warm weather, formed an impenetrable layer of ice over the grass. By January, temperatures had plummeted far below normal; howling blizzards marooned men and animals, and cattle died by the thousands. Russell was one of those who were stranded by the weather, and he sent his employers a grim message about the welfare of the herds with his now-famous watercolor of a single, starving cow in the snow menaced by circling wolves. Russell and his contemporaries knew well the dangers of a Montana winter. Travel posed great risks, particularly for those caught by a sudden storm in open country. On many occasions, the weather was so intense that people lost their way between a ranch house and a nearby stable, and cowboys related that it was sometimes difficult to see their own horses’ heads in the snow, much less find their way to a destination. In this painting, two mounted white men with a pack horse warily receive sign talk from a group of mounted Blackfeet. Although the Indians and white men remain guarded, the power of nature has forced them to depend upon each other. Russell has carefully rendered the details of the Indians’ dress, from their brightly colored trade blankets to the decorative beadwork of their rifle slings and bandoliers. The horses, all sensitively painted, turn their shaggy bodies against the bitter winds, as one of the Indians makes the sign for “astride” to the cowboys. Russell’s characteristic buffalo skull, soon to evolve into a schematized part of his signature, seems to partially disappear under the drifting snow.