About the Work of Art:

Charles M. Russell (1864–1926)
The Medicine Man, 1908
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
1961.171

 

Charles M. Russell (1864–1926), The Medicine Man, 1908, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1961.171

 

 

 

The Medicine Man won enthusiastic praise at the time it was first exhibited in Helena, Montana, in 1909 and in New York City in 1911. Charles Russell described The Medicine Man in a 1911 letter to Willis Sharpe Kilmer, who purchased the painting:

The medicine man among the Plains Indians often had more to do with the movements of his people than the chief and he is supposed to have the power to speak with the spirits and the animals. This painting represents a band of Blackfeet Indians with the Medicine Man in the foreground. The landscape was taken from a sketch I made on Loan [sic] Tree Creek in the Judith Basin and I remember when this was game country. The mountain range in the background is the Highwood with Haystack and Steamboat Buttes to the right. The Blackfeet once claimed all country from Saskatchewan south to the Yellowstone and one of their favorite hunting grounds was the Judith Basin.

Russell includes several visual clues in the painting that signify the medicine man’s high rank in the tribe. He carries in his right hand a crooked lance trimmed with a scal plock—a long tuft of hair from the crown of the head—and feathers. A crooked lance, rather than a straight one, indicates a Native American’s eminent standing within a tribe. In Russell’s observation of high-ranking tribe members, he noted that “where the head man stuck his lance in the ground is where the women put up their lodges.” One example of the medicine man’s “medicine” is illustrated in the antelope horn pendant around his neck. In the painting, the keyhole-shaped symbol on the horse’s right shoulder usually means that its owner has stolen horses from in front of an enemy tipi.

The Blackfeet lived a nomadic life. When a band of Blackfeet moved, they carried all their belongings. The Blackfeet followed herds of buffalo across the open plains throughout the year and set up camp wherever buffalo hunting was good. In The Medicine Man, some of the horses have long poles strapped to either side of their saddles. These poles are part of the travois, a device designed to carry tribal belongings, such as heavy buffalo skins for a tipi. Together these items could weigh as much as 500 pounds! Because Blackfeet women owned most of the property, including the tipis, they were responsible for transporting it.

Russell’s depictions of Native Americans demonstrated great sensitivity, respect, and understanding. During Russell’s career he saw the history of the early West being supplanted by legend. He knew instinctively that the West would be remembered and celebrated mostly through romance and myth. In Russell’s best work, the viewer seems to live in his time and travel the trails with him.

 

Back to Top

 

 
 
Amon Carter Museum
© 2003, Amon Carter Museum