Charles M. Russell (1864–1926)
Breaking Camp, ca. 1885
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection
This painting was among the first that Russell exhibited to the public. It represents one of the roundup camps in the Judith Basin of central Montana where Russell was then working as a cowboy. Some of the riders are roping their horses from the remuda, while others have saddled up only to find their mounts unwilling to carry the load. In this very early work Russell’s vision is akin to that of a folk artist, where every detail of an everyday scene is painstakingly recorded. The rider second from the left, for example, has a California-style saddle with long tapaderos extending over the stirrups, while the rider on the bucking horse in the center has a far simpler Texas-style saddle. Even at this early stage, Russell’s tentative efforts as an artist were being noticed. In January 1887 a writer for the Fort Benton River Press was impressed enough to characterize the young cowboy as “an artist of no ordinary ability” who had already painted “several of the most spirited pictures of cowboy life we have ever seen.” The writer also mentioned that this painting had been exhibited in the art building of the Saint Louis annual fair the previous winter. When Russell painted this scene, the great buffalo herds had only recently been eliminated from the northern prairies, and the open-range cattle industry was flourishing on lands that had been ceded by the Indian tribes. This painting depicts the rich grasslands north and west of the Judith River, where Russell first worked as a night herder and horse wrangler. The cowboys and their recalcitrant mounts are a type that Russell would later make famous in his works. It is interesting to note that only American cowboys customarily carried six-shooters, as they are doing in Russell’s painting. Canadian riders rarely did so, and the Mexican vaqueros considered the practice unmanly. But research has shown that few American cowboys seem to have carried their weapons during the roundups, as Russell shows here, because they were mostly unnecessary for the work at hand.