This blog marks the sixth instalment of a monthly series about the 1919 Victory Stampede, which was held 100 years ago to commemorate the end of the Great War.

Since quitting the trade as a working cowhand in 1893, esteemed western artist Charles M. Russell (1864–1926) had long been embraced as the “Cowboy Artist” by newsmen and the public alike. His ascension in artistic and popular circles as one of the premier artists of the American West opened many doors, including an introduction to Wild West showman and rodeo promoter, Guy Weadick. In 1912 and again in 1919, the charismatic Weadick sought out Russell as a major exhibitor and headliner to help promote “The Stampede” rodeo in Calgary, Alberta.

Just as it was for Weadick, the 1919 Stampede offered Russell a grand stage on which to return. For the past three years, the Russells had been busy at home raising a baby boy, Jack, whom they adopted, which offered precious little time to travel or exhibit afar. Weadick’s invitation gave Russell the promotional platform and large audience he needed to showcase his exhibition of 24 oils created from 1913 to 1919.[1] He shared the exhibition space with fellow western artist, Edward Borein (1872–1945), who exhibited his etchings and lithographs of bucking bronc riders and steer ropers.

Stampede dignitaries meeting behind the Palliser Hotel, August 1919, including western artists Charles M. Russell (far right) and Edward Borein (fourth from right), Stampede backers Pat Burns (fifth from left) and A.E. Cross (eighth from left), as well as Stampede founder, Guy Weadick (sixth from left).

The 1919 show saw Russell active in creating promotional artworks for Weadick to use in advertising.[2] Among those created include a watercolor for the official Stampede letterhead and envelope, a large watercolour of a rodeo contestant falling from a horse that was used for a poster and a line drawing of a bucked off cowboy that appeared as the frontispiece for a foldout brochure on the Stampede.  These at times humorous and action-filled artworks delivered the wild spirit that Guy Weadick sought to encompass in his grand Stampede.

1919 Calgary Stampede poster, featuring a watercolour painting by Charles M. Russell.

Included within the Official Souvenir Programme available to visitors was a biographical sketch of the artist; within it, the author prized Russell’s work as a visual documentarian, one who showcased the detail, realism and historical accuracy of the west, stating, “The roundup, the range rider, the outlaw horse, the mess wagon in dire vicissitude, roping, branding—of these details of a vanished past, Russell had made a record that would last.”[3] The vanishing past was a theme echoed by many of Russell’s contemporaries as rural living and frontier societies became subsumed by modern life, the rise of urban cities and the mechanization of the workplace and the economy. For a population reeling from the effects of the war, Russell’s images offered a respite from the barrage of photographs and newsreels that had saturated daily life; his work harkened to a familiar and reassuring landscape far from the trenches and war-wracked cities of Europe.

So too, Russell’s bold, vibrant color palette that flourished in this period added a startling lucidity to his iconic visages of western life and his traditional realist painting style. One of the undisputed masterworks exhibited in the show, Signal Glass, 1916, captures the depth and brilliance of color that underscores the vitality of that passed life. The image pictures a group of First Nations people of the Great Plains, likely Blackfeet, standing on a bluff of prairie grass as one holds up a mirror to catch the rays of the sun in order to send a message to their fellow Blackfeet. The powerful experience of viewing Russell’s works was relayed by an old cowpuncher friend of his, Teddy Blue Abbott, who went to the Stampede; “I saw a lot of old Buffalo Indians there…you could see those old men get in a bunch in front of it and they would straighten up and their eyes would shine like stars. They talked and made signs—it was great to watch them.”[4]

Charles M. Russell’s “Signal Glass,” which was displayed at the 1919 Calgary Stampede.

The Stampede in Calgary proved, once again, to be an unbridled success for the artist, substantially increasing his notoriety and sales, while widening his circle of patrons and opportunities to exhibit. As Russell wrote to a close friend at the end of the show, “It was shure good.”[5]

This guest blog is written by Emily Wilson, Curator of the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana. Visit the C.M. Russell Museum’s exhibit in Western Oasis during Stampede, where they will be showcasing giclées of the paintings that Russell displayed at the 1919 Victory Stampede.

[1] Only one of the twenty-four oils shown, A Mother’s Claim [A Serious Predicament], 1908, is outside this timeframe. It was likely included because it was featured prominently in the promotion of the 1912 Stampede.

[2] Russell’s contract with calendar and print company Brown & Bigelow had tied his hands in being able to produce marketing material for the 1912 show. By 1919, the contract had expired.

[3] The biographical sketch included a reprint of an article by Clarke Fiske titled “The Genius of Montana—It’s Artists” from which the quote is pulled.

[4] The term Indian was common at the time of writing in 1919, but is no longer used in reference to First Nations in Canada. “What I Saw on My Trip to the Big Calgary Stampede” Flathead Courier Oct 9, 1919.

[5] Russell to Con Price, October 15, 1919, In Brian Dippie, Charles M. Russell, Word Painter: Letter 1887-1926, 283.