Her­itage of the West: Charles M. Rus­sell

Wichita, KS

Western Art Collector - - CONTENTS -

Sev­eral key Western mu­se­ums come up over and over again when dis­cussing the works of Charles M. Rus­sell, among them the Amon Carter Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art in Texas, the Gil­crease Mu­seum in Ok­la­homa and the mu­seum that bears the artist’s name, the C.M. Rus­sell Mu­seum in Mon­tana.

With 26 works by Rus­sell, the Wichita Art Mu­seum in Wichita, Kansas, cer­tainly can’t com­pete with the ma­jor Rus­sell mu­se­ums, but the qual­ity and va­ri­ety of the works prove it holds some im­por­tant works by the fa­mous cow­boy artist. Many of the mu­seum’s Rus­sell works are now on dis­play in Her­itage of the West: Charles M. Rus­sell, a semi-per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion that fea­tures a num­ber of key pieces from the mu­seum col­lec­tion.

“We have quite a cache,” says mu­seum cu­ra­tor Tera Hedrick. “It’s great fun to have such a va­ri­ety of Char­lie Rus­sell works in our col­lec­tion, from il­lus­trated let­ters and po­ems, oils, bronzes, wa­ter­col­ors…it’s a ter­rific se­lec­tion of ma­te­ri­als. The Rus­sells are some of the pieces that vis­i­tors ask about most of­ten at our front desk, par­tic­u­larly long-time Wichita res­i­dents who know the re­gion and have seen them over the years. They’re a beloved part of the mu­seum.”

Twenty-five of the 26 Rus­sell works come from Mau­rice Clif­ford Naftzger, a prom­i­nent Kansas col­lec­tor who gifted the works to the mu­seum. M. C. Naftzger’s fa­ther, Levi S. Naftzger, es­tab­lished the fam­ily’s promi­nence in Wichita by found­ing the Bank of Com­merce in Wichita in 1883, which later evolved into South­west Na­tional Bank.

“An ar­ti­cle pub­lished in the Sun­day is­sue of The Wichita Ea­gle and The Bea­con on Au­gust 12, 1973, notes that when M. C. Naftzger moved to Wichita as a baby in 1885, Wichita’s cow­town days were al­ready be­hind it, but still lin­gered a bit,” says Hedrick. “As an adult, M. C. Naftzger had youth­ful mem­o­ries of ‘cow­boys rid­ing by on mouse-col­ored ponies, wear­ing chaps and spurs and car­ry­ing guns.’ Naftzger al­ways loved the West. He was an avid col­lec­tor, and trav­eled Mon­tana in Rus­sell’s foot­steps, and met Rus­sell’s wi­dow, [Nancy Rus­sell]. In a 1959 in­ter­view he noted

that he had to com­pete against ‘men of great wealth’ like Texan Amon Carter to ac­quire his col­lec­tion.”

When Naftzger died in 1972, his col­lec­tion was do­nated to the mu­seum the fol­low­ing year. Other mem­bers of the Naftzger fam­ily have also do­nated works by other artists.

Works in the on­go­ing ex­hi­bi­tion in­clude the il­lus­trated pages of po­etry by Johnny Ritch, the works are known as Shorty’s Saloon; Amer­ica’s First Printer, a small work on pa­per com­pleted the year Rus­sell died of a Na­tive Amer­i­can kneel­ing on his horse paint­ing on a rock wall; and Smok­ing Cattle Out of the Breaks, a 1912 oil of cow­boys herd­ing cattle from above a nar­row ravine.

“I just love Smok­ing Cattle Out of the Breaks. This is Rus­sell at his com­po­si­tional and painterly best. I love the com­plex­ity of the piece, and the way the land­scape and to­pog­ra­phy play such a key role in the paint­ing,” Hedrick says, adding that Amer­ica’s First Pain­ter is a fa­vorite of the school chil­dren who visit the mu­seum. “It’s such a won­der­ful im­age, and the kids and our do­cents love it. I think the kids are drawn to it be­cause you can see how it was cre­ated. And be­cause it’s in pen and ink it’s not un­like their own doo­dles. It’s re­lat­able to them.”

Other works in­clude the stun­ning Buf­falo on the Move, an 1899 oil that shows a herd of buf­falo mov­ing through a sprawl­ing land­scape that in­cludes dis­tant moun­tains, a river slowly fill­ing with the mas­sive herd and a fore­ground that of­fers an em­bank­ment for the au­di­ence, and a lone wolf, to ad­mire the scene be­fore them.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is on­go­ing now and will likely re­main a ma­jor part of the mu­seum for some time.

Charles M. Rus­sell (1864-1926), Buf­falo on the Move, 1899, oil on can­vas, 241/8 x 361/8”. Wichita Art Mu­seum, M. C. Naftzger Col­lec­tion.

Top: Charles M. Rus­sell (1864-1926), In­dian Buf­falo Hunt, 1897, oil on can­vas. Wichita Art Mu­seum, M. C. Naftzger Col­lec­tion.

Mid­dle: Charles M. Rus­sell (1864-1926), Smok­ing Cattle Out of the Breaks, 1912, oil on can­vas, 30¼ x 33”. Wichita Art Mu­seum, M. C. Naftzger Col­lec­tion.

Right: Charles M. Rus­sell (1864-1926), Pony Raid, 1896, oil on can­vas, 93⁄8 x 14”. Wichita Art Mu­seum, M. C. Naftzger Col­lec­tion.

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