Dead horses and dead men can be a hard sell in 2014, but not when it comes to a Charlie Russell painting.
So says eminent Russell scholar Brian Dippie, who received the C.M. Russell Heritage Award from the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, during its auction benefit this March.
The $1.25 million bid for Russell’s Offering a Truce (Bested) confirmed the cowboy artist’s enduring appeal. The painting broke a record for the live auction on March 22, which raised funds for the museum, three days after the day Russell was born, 150 years ago.
In 1895, a decade after Russell quit riding the range as a wrangler for the DHS Ranch in Montana’s Judith Basin, he dramatically painted outlaws surrendering, in the summer of 1884, to his former ranch boss, Granville Stuart, and his vigilantes, known as Stuart’s Stranglers. Staging the scene on the open plains, the artist bloodied the dirt with dead comrades and horses shot down during the shoot-out. “The shell casings that litter the ground and the empty bullet loops on the outlaws’ gun belts tell the story,” notes Sarah Burt, the museum’s chief curator. “Without ammunition, surrender was the outlaws’ only option—a thief certain to be [hanged] would never give up as long as he could shoot.”
Much like the heroic quality found in images of George Custer’s “Last Stand,” which circulated after the tragic 1876 battle took the life of the general and so many of his soldiers, this painting features its own beacon, one desperate outlaw waving the white flag of surrender at the oncoming vigilantes.
Dippie defines the painting as “stark, even brutal, in its unsparing realism” compared to a 1909 Russell painting, When Horse Flesh Comes High, in which, he says, “Russell gave a shoot-out between horse thieves and pursuers a romantic glow consistent with his nostalgic vision of the ‘West that has passed.’”
Collectors made more than $5.2 million on Western artworks, including numerous works by the cowboy artist.