The Glenbow Museum has pulled together a collection of paintings by famous cowboy artist Charlie Russell that were displayed at the first Calgary Stampede 100 years ago.

The U.S. artist was invited to exhibit at the very first Stampede in 1912 by founder Guy Weadick. He found a ready market for his paintings among the Calgary ranchers of the era.

He sold most of the 20 paintings — depicting cowboys at work and play as well as First Nations people in Western landscapes — that he brought to that first event.

Because of that success, when the Glenbow decided to feature the art from the 1912 exhibit to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Stampede, staff had to search for works that are now widely scattered in private and public collections in Canada and the U.S., according to senior curator Lorain Lounsberry.


Charles M. Russell's The Wagon Boss, 1909, was collected by the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Collection of Gilcrease Museum/Glenbow Museum)

"When Guy Weadick invited Charlie Russell to exhibit at the Stampede, Weadick was celebrating a way of life that he thought and the rest of the ranchers thought was going to be gone forever," Lounsberry told CBC News.

"What people will see in the exhibition is a celebration of the Old West, but it's also a celebration of the landscapes and the lifestyles that do continue," she added.

Aspiring cowboy-turned-artist

Russell was born in Missouri in 1864 and made his name as a "cowboy artist" in Montana. He had aspirations to be a cowboy from the time he was a teen. His drawings captured the land and those around him, but also a richly imagined past in which native people roamed the landscape before the arrival of Europeans.

"He dwells on the cowboy at work — looking after the cows, getting rid of their predators — and cowboys at play, going into their saloon and blasting off," Lounsberry said.

'The wild mountains and arid plains, the sunrises and sunsets: these are all still really familiar to people who live in the west' —Lorain Lounsberry, curator

One of Russell's most popular paintings is A Mix Up, which shows one cowboy in a spot of trouble: his lasso is under the tail of his horse and a calf is dodging out of the way — a touch of humour in a tough lifestyle. The artist was also a canny marketer and, after discovering the passion for his work in Alberta, turned his brush to new subjects such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Russell's images of the Old West helped shape the depictions of cowboy life shown in the Western films of the 1950s and 1960s, Lounsberry said.

But he was also remarkable for his ability to capture light and the unique landscapes of Alberta and Montana, she added.

"The west of Canada and the west of Montana share a lot: they share landscapes and weather systems and that's what Charlie captured in his paintings. The wild mountains and arid plains, the sunrises and sunsets: these are all still really familiar to people who live in the west in southern Alberta and Canada," Lounsberry said.

Charlie Russell and The First Calgary Stampede runs at the Glenbow in Calgary until July 29.