Sunday, November 9, 2014

When the Land Belonged to God - Charles M. Russell

Late last week I was able to visit the Montana Historical Society and show my boys one of my all time favorite paintings. We only had a short while at the historical society museum in Helena, so we went straight to the Charlie Russell section to see this painting.

When the Land Belonged to God - Charles M. Russell, Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana
I think I could probably find the spot depicted in the painting relatively easily from the horizon to the right of the bison - Square Butte and the Highwood Mountains. I had always thought of this as a depiction of buffalo as sunset, but now, after looking at the geography, I realized that this is in fact a depiction of sunrise, with the animals moving north across the Missouri rather than heading south as I had believed. If my geography is correct that would put the vantage point of this painting somewhere downstream of Fort Benton just before the Missouri makes a big bend to the south just south of the town of Big Sandy. Next time I am in that area I will have to pay attention to the skyline to the south of the river to see if I an pinpoint it a bit better than that. I would appreciate any other thoughts or comments on my speculation about this location.

When the Land Belonged to God (detail) - Charles M. Russell - Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana
I could look at this painting for hours. Not only to appreciate the way he used bold colors in this painting to make me feel like I am sitting there at sunrise with the golden Missouri River water still streaming from the bull's beard, but also for making me feel like I had just been noticed by the bull - his tail up and looking straight at me. It gives me apprehension of an imminent close encounter and a feeling that I need to start looking for an escape route soon.

It also represents the West that Charlie Russell longed for and a time in Montana that I can only vaguely imagine and get glimpses of through the remnants of bison horns still found in the prairie grass and the bones and skulls that litter the banks of the river. What a place this must have been.

It is also home for me. I can easily imagine a scene very similar to this occurring not that long ago at the site of the house I grew up in on the banks of the Missouri River, near the mouth of Big Dry Creek, as well as my current resident above the banks of the Yellowstone River near the mouth of Alkali Creek.

One additional detail I hadn't really paid attention to before is the appearance of a sage-grouse in the foreground.

When the Land Belonged to God (detail) - Charles M. Russell, Montana Historical Society Helena, Montana

There, hiding in the branches of a beaver cut log, is a Greater Sage-Grouse. Just to the right is a wolf. How prescient Charlie Russell was to depict the three greatest wildlife challenges in the state of Montana right now. First it was the reintroduction of wolves into the Yellowstone region and re-colonization from populations to the north; then it was bison and recent efforts to fine a place for wild bison in Montana outside of Yellowstone National Park; and most recently it is the impending Endangered Species listing decision for Greater Sage-Grouse and the recent Governors executive order dealing with sage-grouse management in Montana.

I sometimes wonder what he would think of his Montana now, but I think I have a pretty good idea.

God made Montana for the wild man
for the Piegan, and the Sioux and Crow,
Saved His greatest gift for Charlie,
Said "Get her all down before she goes,
You gotta get her all down
'cause she's bound to go. 
Ian Tyson - The Gift

I was raised with the West around,
Enough to hum her tune,
But I never know the place like the old boys did,
Chinook to Mountain View.
Cause this was all a cathedral then,
And the cowboys they all knew,
That you can't keep a loop on paradise,
but she disappeared so soon,
She disappeared so soon.  
Corb Lund - Especially a Paint.


Montanagirl said...

Really nice post!

Tom Mccormick said...

nice one John kinda feel
the same way.....