GREAT FALLS — The C.M. Russell Museum is already the premier place in Montana to learn about arguably the most renowned Western artists in American history. Now a prominent collection on loan from the Montana Historical Society is adding to the legend of Charles M. Russell.
The exhibition is called ‘Discovering Russell: The MacKay Collection’, originally owned by Malcolm MacKay who befriended Russell in 1911 in New York.
“He had a ranch here in Montana, even though he was from New Jersey. He was a very wealthy businessman. He loved the West,” said C.M. Russell Museum Associate Curator Sarah Adcock. “And so Charlie was a kindred spirit in that way. And he knew and realized that Charlie was painting a vastly disappearing way of life.”
MacKay was such a fan of Russell, he built a Russell room with a log cabin feel in his east coast home that displayed many of Russell’s paintings.
There are 16 pieces from the MacKay Collection on display in Great Falls. Five pieces are from the Montana Historical Society permanent collection. One of them is ‘Waiting on a Chinook, the Last of 5,000.’
“If you ever want to talk about a picture that's worth a thousand words, this one really did it,” said Adcock.
The piece tells the story of a harsh winter in 1886-1887 when Russel was a cowhand in Judith Basin County. One of the artist’s most famous creations, it depicts a starving cow facing predators in the bitter cold elements.
The exhibition came about after the Montana Historical Society began construction on the new Montana Heritage Center.
“Because they were under construction, the idea came about that we wanted to make sure that the people of Montana and the country could actually enjoy as many Russell paintings and works as possible,” said Adcock. “And instead of storing this collection, it could come here where we had the space available to actually keep it on display.”
Also on display is 1922’s ‘Charles M. Russell and His Friends’ offering the artist’s view of Square Butte and the Missouri River.
“It kind of captures that whole heart and soul, that legacy he wanted to capture,” said Adcock. “You have Charlie on his horse and you have his friends. We have Native Americans and cowboys alike. This is a pure imagination kind of painting in the sense that at this time period you wouldn't have the open range that's depicted here.”
Russell’s one-of-a-kind artistry, and his humor, are also evident in the watercolor, 'Broncs for Breakfast.'
“We have this kind of chaotic scene where we have a horse that's kind of gone a little wild,” said Adcock. “It's definitely knocked over breakfast. And then you have all of these onlookers who are either cheering on the cowboy to hang on tight or maybe to fall off. We're not really sure.”
The works will be on loan until the Historical Society completes its Montana Heritage Center.
Until then, western art lovers can take in what might be the museum’s largest collection of Russell artwork.
“We really do have more masterworks on display than we probably will for the foreseeable future,” said Adcock. “We do have over 200 Russell works on display in our museum right now.”
Of course, museum visitors can also spend time in the facility’s 16 exhibition galleries, enjoy the gift shop, and tour the original Russell House and studio.
The museum is currently operating under Winter hours until April 30, Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m to 5 p.m.