While writing my novel, The Jewel of His Heart last year, I was researching for interesting facts to incorporate into my historical. My story takes place in Montana and I had the luxury of visiting there twice. I was able to come away with interesting historical facts to weave into my plot. The story is loosely based on the discovery of the Yogo Sapphires mined only in Montana. The heroine, Juliana Brady, falls for a sheepherder whose eyes come to haunt her from a sketch she sees hanging in a restaurant. In my opening chapter, Josh McBride, the sheepherder, shares a meal with Charlie who passes Josh’s sheep camp on his way home. Charlie is intrigued by the kind Sheepherder and his loyal dog and quickly sketches them. Charlie wasn’t widely famous at the time, but was a cowboy and had a short stint sheepherding before hanging up his spurs to live out his dream of being an artist. He was none other than Charles M. Russell, a St. Louis native who moved to Montana as a teenager.
Charlie won his first blue ribbon for his art work when he was twelve at the St. Louis County fair. His family wanted him to have a good education, and though he’d made up his mind to go west and become a cowboy, they sent him to military school in New Jersey in 1879. His natural instincts did not include book learning, but art and the lure of the West competed for his attention. At the military school he was continually at odds with his instructors and dropped out after one year. At 16, his parents allowed him to visit Montana Territory with a family friend. Charlie immediately fell in love with the beauty of Judith Basin and he knew he would return some day. In fact, he enjoyed being a cowboy, practicing his drawing, sculptures and painting whenever he had a spare moment. Usually he gave away his work to friends and fellow cowboys. He used meticulous detail to depict horses, Indians and cowboys and their struggles in the West to create beautiful paintings. He soon became a popular artist, and was highly regarded by his contemporaries.
Charlie was good natured and well liked by all. He sported a red sash around his neck and usually had a cigarette dangling from his lip. Since he was naturally creative in painting, even his letters to his friends were filled with his unusual wit and humor. He and his mentor, Jake Hoover, also in my story, spent a lot of leisure time hanging out at local saloons in Utica in the 1880’s. He finally fell in love, marrying at the age of thirty-two to eighteen year old Nancy Cooper. They settled down in Great Falls, MT and she is credited with the success of marketing his works and negotiating large prices for his paintings. Russell was an adventurous and a rugged individual, but when he began his paintings depicting wild horses and cowboys, much of the ‘Old West’ was coming to the end of an era. His representation of western history and folklore of the American cowboy and Indians was how he became a legacy.
Russell’s vast array of painting and sculpture now fill many museums and are owned by private art collectors. was fortunate enough to seen some of his most magnificent paintings and bronzes at the Denver Art Museum one year. I have a deep appreciation for all things West and Russell’s accurate portrayal of the American Cowboy and wildlife is exceptional.
When my heroine assists in a fund raiser to raise money to build a school for the miners’ children, she spots the painting of the sheepherder again. I thought it was a fun way to bring a little history into the story centered on a painting of a sheepherder’s eyes that haunt her until they meet again. Though Russell lived in Great Falls, MT during that time and painted many pictures of cowboys and sheepherders, I took the liberty of using him as the artist to work with my story. That part is fictitious, however, he was friends with Jake Hoover who discovered the first Yogo sapphires in Yogo Creek.
My hobby is oil painting and as a self taught artist, I guess that’s where my love of Western art began. It would’ve been a dream come true to be taught under his tutelage. Of course, painting has taken a back seat as I continue my love of writing about the West and the American Cowboy.
Russell died October 24, 1926 of a heart attack and the art world mourned his loss. But he’d made an impact on ranchers, cowboys, writers and historians with his art and they realized they had lost an influential spokesman.
You can visit the Russell’s museum in Great Falls and see through his eyes the true romantic description of the American Cowboy and the West.
Thanks for having me as a guest blogger on your wonderful and informative website. I hope you’ll look for my books in the Heart of the West series. The 3rd one, A Love of Her Own, will be released in June. You can visit me anytime at http://southernbellewriter.blogspot.com/
And I’ll be giving away a copy of The Jewel Of Her Heart to one of today’s commenters!
Happy Trails, Maggie