Charles M. Russell (1864–1926)
Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia, 1905
Opaque and transparent watercolor over graphite underdrawing on paper
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection
As Russell’s art developed and he began to receive more commissions as an illustrator, he steeped himself in the history of the American West. Throughout his life he was captivated by the exploits of the famed expedition led by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804–1806. By the time of the centennial celebrations of their epic journey across the continent, Russell had familiarized himself with the published versions of their journals. This evocative watercolor, based on a true event, shows the explorers meeting a group of Indians in decorated canoes somewhere along the lower reaches of the Columbia River. On a cool windy morning on October 28, 1805, while descending the river below present-day The Dalles, the exploring party encountered three canoes filled with local Indians who had come to observe them. In his journal entry, William Clark noted that the canoes were “built of white cedar or pine,” and very light in construction with raised bows that featured carvings of animal heads. In this watercolor, Russell shows Clark standing at the stern of his canoe, his red hair barely visible under his cap, warily cradling his rifle. Sacajawea, the expedition’s Shoshone guide, attempts to talk sign language with the Indians, although it is doubtful they would have understood her. Below her Russell has painted York, Clark’s black manservant, whose dark skin fascinated the Indians. Misty clouds hang on the water, shrouding the dark forms of the conifer-covered landscape. Russell effectively bathes the early morning scene in light purples, pale blues, and rosy pinks. At this point in his life, Russell had not seen the lower Columbia, and the Indian objects he depicts are not quite right for the area. It is likely that he derived his knowledge of the elaborate headdresses, decorated clothing, and design motifs on the Indian canoes from the objects he had recently seen in George Heye’s extensive collection in New York City. All these objects were more typical of the Pacific coast Indian tribes found farther north, in present-day British Columbia.