Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Charles M. Russell – A Desperate Stand (1898)

Charles Marion Russell was an artist of the Old American West, creating over 2,000 paintings of cowboys, Indians, and the landscapes of the West. Though being known for several paintings depicting cowboys, hence his nickname as "the cowboy artist", in reality Russell's depictions of Native Americans outweigh those of cowboys by a ratio of three to one.
Joan Troccoli explored the context and detail of Russell's work during an exhibition, noting in depth Russell's sympathy for the indigenous people, stating that they were "Russell's ideal, their human failings all but cancelled out by their tragic fate", almost suggesting that the conflict initiated by the people was justified, as they fought to take back their own land. Russell aligned himself with the American Indians, creating a physical resemblance to the people in his clothing, and even taking the "Indian" name, 'Ah-wah-cous' (Antelope) for himself. It is interesting to note how eagerly Russell sided with the American Indians, considering the era, as well as his focus on Native women, as well as warriors, revealing his admiration for the independence and courage of Indian women. It is this unique subject matter and style which makes Russell such a distinctive artist at the time of the "Wild West" trend.
When exploring Russell's work, Troccoli made a point of noting how the artist depicts Native Indians as "dignified, complex human beings who held the only truly authentic claim to the West", as well as actively protesting the "injustice and public indifference that attended their removal from ancetral lands." I believe that this is emphasised greatly in the painting which I have chosen.
Among Russell's multitude of work, his painting 'A Desperate Stand' (1898), caught my eye immediately, with it being the depiction of a battle scene between settlers and Indians.
This painting is captioned:
"The discovery of gold in southwestern Montana in 1862 brought a flood of prospectors to the region. Unfortunately, it also brought numerous conflicts with the indigenous native people who lived and roamed there. By the summer of 1864...groups of prospectors were being attacked by hostile Indians.
Here, Russell depicted one of those battles, between a group of men...and a band of hostile Blackfeet...A Blackfoot lies dead in the left foreground...Russell created a tight central composition...A man in the very centre of Russell's painting aims his rifle...directly at the viewer - placing the viewer, as Russell often did, on the side of the Indians."
What immediately caught my eye when I first saw the painting, as intended, was the dead Indian in the foreground, a shocking, emotive subject. This, alongside Russell having the opposition seemingly aim his rifle at the viewer of the painting, almost ensures that people will sympathise with the American Indians.
Possible symbolic meanings behind the painting are numerous. Firstly, the fact that the group of men are using the bodies of the fallen horses as barracks almost implies how the settlers would do anything to protect and serve themselves, the use of the dead horses similar to the death of numerous American Indians as a result of "protection" of settlers. Another symbolic aspect of the painting would be the Indians in the background of the art, clearly signifying that they outnumber the settlers, in horses and possibly manpower. This could signify how Indians initially outweighed settlers in Early America, yet this soon changed due to settlement and a clear gap in weapons, with new Americans having guns. Whether the above symbolic meanings were intended or not is unclear, but given Russell's sympathy for the American Indians, it wouldn't be surprising if they were intended.
Context is also key when analysing this painting, especially as this painting was created almost twenty years after the actual battle took place. This indicates that the events portrayed may not be entirely historically accurate, as well as being clearly sympathetic towards the American Indians in its message. Regardless, the painting, and several others by Russell, differ significantly from fellow 19th century Western artists, especially as said artists often actually lived in the East, whereas Russell lived so close to where the pictured battle actually took place.
In conclusion, I believe that this painting embodies the American West well, especially in relation to the struggle between settlers and the indigenous people.

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