History of the Russell Paintings

The five Russell paintings used on Great Northern menus (and reproduced in the observation cars) were painted between 1895 and 1899. Russell married in 1896 and his wife Nancy soon took over the business side of his art, helping to make him an internationally known artist and demanding high prices for his paintings.

Russell painted more than 40 versions of this buffalo hunt; the one used on the menu cover is numbered 26 and is considered one of his best-known paintings. Click image for a larger view.

The backs of my 1948 and 1949 menus say, “Russell pictures reproduced on the Empire Builder fleet are owned by Mrs. Kenneth Egan, Maurice Egan, and Gene Robertson, and are on exhibition in the Mint, in Great Falls.” The “Mint” is not a government building but a saloon that was purchased by a former U.S. Marshall named Sid Willis in 1905. Supposedly, Russell traded his paintings to Willis for drinks and meals, but this seems unlikely since by 1905 Nancy Russell was pretty much in control of the sale of Russell’s art.

In any case, the Mint eventually had a collection of 90 different Russell paintings. I can’t find any record of “Mrs. Kenneth Egan, Maurice Egan, and Gene Robertson” in the Russell biographies I’ve seen, but one report says Willis sold the Mint in 1945 so perhaps they were the new owners.

For a mere $2.25–about $20 in today’s money–this 1951 dinner menu offered a table d’hôte meal with fresh fish; fried ham; grilled lamb chops; or roast turkey that came with oyster bisque; potato or sweet potato; corn; pineapple and cream cheese salad; biscuits or bread; dessert; and beverage; or a $1.35 plate dinner with a choice of fish; pork spare ribs; ham omelet; or turkey sandwich that also came with potatoes; biscuits; vegetable; apple turnover; and beverage. Click image to download a 2.2-MB PDF of the menu.

In contradiction to this, however, Wikipedia says Willis offered his collection of Russell paintings for sale in 1948. The collection did not sell until 1952 when Ft. Worth newspaper publisher Amon Carter bought it and moved it to what is now the Amon Carter Museum. Many people in Montana hoped to keep the paintings there but apparently no one was able to outbid Carter.

Starting in 1951, the menu backs read, “Russell pictures reproduced on the Western Star fleet are on exhibition in the Mint, in Great Falls”–in other words, the same as before but without saying anything about ownership. Menus from 1953 and 1954, after the collection moved to Ft. Worth, say nothing at all about the ownership or locations of the original paintings.

In 1953, the owner of another collection of Russell artwork, Josephine Trigg, opened the Trigg-Russell Museum in Great Falls. Since Great Falls was on the route of the Western Star, the 1956 and 1957 menus say, “A modern art gallery in Great Falls, sponsored by the Trigg-Russell Foundation and dedicated to the memory of Charlie Russell, houses many of the artist’s finest oils, watercolors, sketches, and sculptures.”

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