Heritage of the West: Charles M. Russell
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.