Log in

No account? Create an account

Random flotsam from the shattered windmills of my mind

Me, architecture, history, politics, Washington D.C., photography, Cleveland

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
(no subject)
Here's a fascinating short article about a sort of History Detectives-meets-Antiques Roadshow story. Back in 1940, DC Comics was owned by entrepreneur Harry Donenfeld. That year, the Superman comics were going to be turned into a radio show. To help advertise the radio show, Donenfeld commissioned a full-length oil portrait of the Man of Steel. For several years thereafter, the portrait hung in his office. DC Comics archivists even took black-and-white photos of Donenfeld and his staff in front of the image. One of the last photos taken was in color, but it was of poor quality.

Then the painting disappeared.

So how did it end up in Lief Library at Lehman College in The Bronx?????????????

This is the story, and it's great!

Stories like this are the kind of thing which fascinate me. When I was growing up, kids in my home town of Great Falls, Montana, were repeatedly told about the famous Western "cowboy artist," Charles M. Russell. There were three artists who were painting the Old West who were considered superb: Frederic Remington, O.C. Seltzer, and Charlie Russell. Remington had New York City connections, and his stuff sold all over the country for thousands of dollars even though it was often inaccurate (putting a squaw saddle on brave's horse, for example). Seltzer was based in Oklahoma, and a protegé of Russell's.

Russell was born in St. Louis, but went West in 1882 at the age of 18 and became a cow-hand. By 1886, Russell had drifted into Montana -- then the northern end of the great cattle drive trails of the late 19th century. He'd always been a sketcher, drawer, and sculptor of clay, and he'd honed his art on the trail. Russell married in 1896, and moved to a log cabin in Great Falls in 1897. In time, he built his wife a clapboard house, and used the log cabin as his studio. His work often exhibits a dry sense of humor. His famous painting Bronc to Breakfast depicts a bucking horse rampaging through a cattle drive camp at dawn -- scattering the surprised cow-hands and overturning their breakfast as a laughing cook looks on. His superb 1918 oil painting, Whose Meat?, depicts a late afternoon setting high in the Rocky Mountains where a starving frontiersman has recently shot a big-horn sheep. Only, the cowboy stands equidistant from a hungry grizzly bear, who has reared up to claim the carcass for himself. The man's terrified horses, rearing and bucking on the left, convey the surprise and shock of the image. Charles M. Russell died in Great Falls in 1926 at the age of 62. The clock on the wall of his studio stopped at the moment of his death.

During his lifetime, actors and directors such as William S. Hart, Harry Carey, Will Rogers, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. collected Russell's work. Today, his art is highly prized. Russell's 1912 painting, Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians, is 12 feet long. Today, it hangs behind the Speaker's rostrum in the House chambers in the Montana State Capitol Building in Helena. Russell's 1918 painting Piegans sold for $5.6 million in 2005. His 1907 watercolor The Truce went for $2.03 million in 2009.


A prophet has no honor in his home town. During his lifetime, Russell was well-known as an artist of note, but the people of Great Falls treated him as a sort of odd-ball, weirdo, and sad-sack. The life of any artist is hard, and Russell would go through periods where he had tons of cash followed by lengthy stretches in which none of his work sold and he lived hand-to-mouth.

These days, every kid in Great Falls learns the story of how Charlie Russell used to go to the Mint Saloon on Central Avenue and trade pictures for drinks. The back wall of the Mint Saloon was covered in Russell artwork at the time of Russell's death. Back in 1927, shortly after Russell's death, the comedian Will Rogers introduced Amon G. Carter to Russell's work. Carter was the publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and he began collecting Russell's artwork in 1935. In 1952, he bought the entire Mint Saloon collection from the bar's owner, Sid Willis, for $1.6 million (in inflation-adjusted dollars). When Carter died in 1955, he established the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth. The Russell works comprised the museum's core collection. They still do to this day. (Roughly a third of Russell's works are at the Amon Carter Museum. Another third are at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls. Another third are in private hands.)

From the master's hand to a bar to a newspaper publisher's home to a major museum.

That's the history of many Charles M. Russell paintings. I find this sort of thing endlessly fascinating. It reveals that coincidence and chance are not nearly as unlikely as we pretend. It reveals that the world is very, very small. It reveals the amazing twists of fate which thrill us (because we so often ignore the twists of fate which occurr in our own lives).

That's why I like the Superman article so much.

  • 1
Because derivatives haven't done any harm at any other time in American history.... except for, oh, say, 2008-present.

thanks for that. i enjoyed reading about Charlie Russell... i always preferred hiw works to those of Remington...

  • 1