Remembering Two Icons of the West

Remembering Two Icons of the West

"Don’t expect the world to throw subsidies at you because you think you’re good."

A famous American uttered these words almost a century ago, but they ring even more true today: “The money we spend on government! And it’s not a bit better than we got for one-third the money two years ago.”

He also advised, “Remember, write to your congressman. Even if he can’t read, write to him.”

In 1928, he ran a facetious campaign for president of the United States. He said he was the candidate of the “Anti-Bunk Party” and that if elected, he would resign. He declared victory, then did as he promised. He resigned.

The man in question was Will Rogers, the most beloved political humorist in the country until his untimely death in a 1935 plane crash. He was born in what would later become the state of Oklahoma, but one of his best friends made him a big fan of Montana. That friend was the renowned painter and sculptor Charles Marion (“Charlie”) Russell.

Rogers once wrote that Charlie “ought to have been a doctor.” Why? “He wouldn’t have had to use an X-ray. He studied you from the inside out. Your outside never interested him.” In Russell, Rogers had a true friend whose company always left him inspired. They were both consummate storytellers.

Despite nearly a century since Charlie died in 1926 at age 62, his legacy is not hard to find. His mural, “Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians,” hangs prominently in the state capitol in Helena. The house in Great Falls where he and wife Nancy lived for nearly 30 years, along with its adjacent studio where he did so much of his work, are the “crown jewels” of the C. M. Russell Museum. Its website rightly proclaims him “one of America’s greatest artists” who “lived the life he captures on canvas, creating a breathtaking historical record of Western cultures, landscapes and wildlife.”

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Charlie spent most of his life in central Montana. As one who loves the outdoors as he did, I’d say he made the right move. When he arrived in 1880, only 40,000 people lived in the entire territory of Montana and statehood was almost a decade away, but the gorgeous scenes he would depict in paint and bronze were endless. He graduated from sheepherder to artist as quickly as he could.

The artworks Charlie created number about 4,000. Few artists of the West have rivaled him in sheer output or quality. 

Making a living was tough until Charlie married Nancy in 1896. It was the perfect partnership in every way. He painted and sculpted, she marketed. Nancy, it’s fair to say, made Charlie an international star. She knew how to put his works before a growing audience that would appreciate and purchase what he turned out.

Therein lies a lesson for today’s so-called “starving artists.” Don’t expect the world to throw subsidies at you because you think you’re good. Learn how to market your product (that is, to please willing customers) or get yourself a Nancy.

Three years after Charlie died, Nancy was still marketing. She arranged the publication in 1929 of a collection of her beloved husband’s letters under the title, “Good Medicine.” None other than Will Rogers wrote the Introduction. One line from it expressed the essence of Charlie Russell and the rugged individualism that you can still find in Montana: “His belief was peace and contentment, let everybody go their own way, live their own lives, so long, of course, as it didn’t trespass the rights of others.”

Oklahoma donated a statue of Will Rogers to the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building in 1939. Twenty years later, Montana dispatched one of Charlie Russell for the collection. Icons of the American West, the two men richly deserved the honor of being together again.


Lawrence W. Reed writes a monthly column for the Frontier Institute in Helena, on whose board he serves. He is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education and blogs at

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