Andy & Charlie
With a century between them, artists Andy Thomas and Charles M. Russell are linked through time by The Russell in Great Falls, Montana.
A look at Andy Thomas’ successful run at The Russell
Part of the legend of Charles M. Russell—beyond the authentic depictions of the West, his colorful cast of cowboy characters and reverent treatment of Native American subjects—is the artist’s distinct physical appearance. That thoughtful gaze. The prominent jawline and furrowed brow. His lips in a slight frown, more serious than angry. His hairstyle, undercut on the sides and parted left of center with hair swooping down around his forehead, topped by a hat tilted back on his head. And, of course, the iconic sash around his waist and dangling at his side. His appearance is just as much of the legend as the art. And here’s a test to prove it: quick, what does Charles Schreyvogel look like? Or Albert Bierstadt? Describe Frederic Remington without using the word “portly” or Thomas Moran without using the word “beard.” You would be forgiven for drawing a blank when asked to pick out Maynard Dixon and William Herbert “Buck” Dunton from a lineup of tall, lanky men with mustaches.
But Russell was different. He had a look. It was his own, and it made him identifiable, in his time and still today.
One person who has always been struck by Russell’s work, as well as his unique look in the annals of Western art, is Missouri painter Andy Thomas. Though the two artists’ lives never intersected—russell died more than 30 years before Thomas was born—their artwork has plenty of overlap: rowdy cowboys on horseback, brave Native American warriors setting across the plains, and thrilling action scenes that show how these characters could interact with the West. “I grew up with Charlie Russell. My dad liked Western art so he exposed me to him very early,” he says. “In our house it was all Russell, Remington and Norman Rockwell, and I was certainly influenced by all of their work, especially Russell.”
In 2008, Thomas did something that would explicitly link him to Russell: he painted him, and then brought the work to The Russell in Russell’s hometown, Great Falls, Montana, on Russell’s birthday.
“There was a bit of a risk doing that. It was very different, and then after I submitted it I immediately had this self-doubt. Artists are a cautious bunch sometimes, and I started worrying it wouldn’t get a single bid,” Thomas remembers. “At that time I had only really painted Russell one other time for a small show in my hometown of Carthage, Missouri. That painting featured campfire storytellers and included Russell and Remington next to each other. I had a lot of fun painting him, and I knew I wanted to paint him again.”
When the call went out for works for The Russell: An Exhibition and Sale to Benefit the C.M. Russell Museum, Thomas, who had largely been selling art from a van as he and his wife crisscrossed the country to attend art fairs, was met with a lucky break. “I had made a concerted effort to get in a big show and that year, in a weird twist, The Russell wanted artists to submit their actual paintings for inclusion in the sale. They had previously asked for 35mm slides, and I never thought those represented my work very well. Once they could see the work firsthand, I got in,” he says. “It would be an important milestone in my career because The Russell would change everything from that point on.”
The work Thomas submitted was his first major Russell painting, Charlie Russell and His Characters. The work depicted a group of men and one woman in a saloon admiring Russell’s newest painting that has been propped up on
Charles M. Russell in his log cabin studio in Great Falls, Montana, working on the painting When the Land Belonged to God. Stark Photograph, 1914.
Andy Thomas in his Missouri studio.
Andy Thomas, Russell Paints a Masterpiece, 2012, oil on linen, 34 x 48"