Western art by Charles M. Russell
Charles M. Russell, "When a Left Handshake Is the Safest," 1919); Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019 (RCIN 407538).

Western Art > “Back-Tracking in Memory” by Nancy Cooper Russell tells the story of the endearing, gifted cowboy artist, Charles M. Russell.

Western art - Charles M Russell artist on a horse
Charles M. Russell on Monty (or Monte), Utica (1886); Photograph by Townley & Runsten, Mandan, D.T. PETRIE COLLECTION.

Nancy Cooper married Charles M. Russell in the little town of Cascade, Montana, in September, 1896. She was eighteen, effectively an orphan, and he was thirty-two, a former cowboy from a good family in St. Louis struggling to make his living as an artist. She would be by his side for the rest of his life as his wife, cheerleader, and extraordinarily capable business manager.

When he died in Great Falls, Montana in 1926, shortly after they celebrated their 30th anniversary, Charlie Russell was at the top of the heap, an American original world famous as the “Cowboy Artist.”

A few months earlier Nancy had written an acquaintance who remembered her from her hardscrabble youth in Helena, “Yes, I am, or was, the little girl you were talking about, way back in ’94. . . . I, as you know, married the only Charles Russell in the world and my life has been very full of romance, which they like to make moving pictures out of, only mine happens to be real.”

Western art by Charles M. Russell
Charles M. Russell, “When Wagon Trails Were Dim,” 1919; Albert K. Mitchell Collection, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum,
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1975.020.5)
“They had a hard time crossing the Crazy Mountains, for the wagon trails were very dim and rough, and one of the horses was played out.”

She realized that with Charlie’s passing, it was up to her to keep that dream alive by keeping him alive for the public, through exhibitions showing his genius with a brush and modeling clay and through books that revealed the man behind the art: “Trails Plowed Under,” a collection of his rangeland stories; “Good Medicine,” a compilation of his inimitable illustrated letters; and a biography, “Back-Tracking in Memory,” that would tell the story of the endearing, gifted man she had known intimately for half his life.

Nancy worked on the biography until her death in 1940 without ever quite finishing it. Tom Petrie and Brian Dippie have collaborated on bringing what she did finish into print, with sidebars, photographs, and artwork to amplify her text.

“Back Tracking in Memory” is available at local bookstores and gift shops, through online retailers, or from distributor Farcountry Press at www.farcountrypress.com.

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