By Suzanne Norquist
I’ve written many blogs about women who made names for themselves. Nancy Cooper Russell, nicknamed Mamie, made a name for her husband. Today, his western paintings, sketches, and sculptures can sell for millions of dollars.
Charles Russell gave her the credit. “The lady I trotted in double harness with,” he once said, “was the best booster an’ pardner a man ever had. She could convince anybody that I was the greatest artist in the world, an’ that makes a feller work harder. Y’u jes’ can’t disappoint a person like that, so I done my best work for her… If it hadn’t been for Mamie, I wouldn’t have a roof over my head.”
Nancy Cooper’s life had been a struggle from the beginning, but she was a fighter. Her father left her mother before her birth in 1878. As soon as she could walk, she worked with her mother and grandparents in the family tobacco fields.
Later, her mother remarried, but her stepfather wasn’t much better. By age sixteen, Nancy was orphaned and living in Helena, Montana. She found work with the Roberts family who treated her like one of their own. She even called them Ma and Pa.
One night, in October of 1895, they invited cowboy artist Charles Russell over for dinner. Fourteen years her senior, he had already led the life of a bachelor cowpuncher. By then, he had decided to make his living as an artist – a meager living, for sure. He often traded drawings or sketches for credit at the local bar or grocery store. Everyone liked his easygoing nature.
His friends knew Charles was smitten when he gave Nancy his beloved pinto pony, Monte. In September of 1896, the pair married—nearly a year after their first meeting. She had turned down his first proposal, and it had taken him a while to convince her.
The couple moved into a small cabin on the Roberts’ property, where Charles barely made a living.
After a year, Nancy convinced him to move to Great Falls, where he would find more of a market for his paintings. Taking matters into her own hands, she sent friends away so Charles could work. Needless to say, she wasn’t popular among his friends, but he still adored her.
One day, a local businessman who had been selling Charles’ paintings said that he’d sold them for six times the asking price. That’s when Nancy took over the business end of things, setting prices and arranging showings. Eventually, she guided him on his choice of subjects, size, and medium of his works in response to buyer preferences.
Charles didn’t mind. As an artist, he had no interest in the business of pricing and selling his work. However, when they bought an upscale home in Great Falls, he built a traditional cabin on the property to use as a workshop.
The higher Nancy priced his work; the more people wanted to buy. She arranged showings in large cities in the east. Charles hated New York and referred to it as “the big camp” with “too many teepees.” Still, he went with her to the showings. He created the art, and she sold the pieces.
Nancy and Charles were never able to have children and adopted an infant in 1916. Charles dotted on his son, Jack, while Nancy focused on selling art.
Nancy’s drive for a bigger business never waned, not even as Charles aged and wished for a slower pace. He died of a heart attack in 1926.
She promoted his art for the rest of her life, sending her son to boarding school, which led to an estrangement. Although a brilliant businesswoman, she struggled in relationships, even turning down marriage proposals so that she would remain Mrs. Charles Russell. She died in 1940 and was buried by Charles’s side in Great Falls.
I admire her for her business savvy, determination, and drive, which greatly contributed to making a name for her husband. She over came incredible odds to carve out a wonderful life for herself, Charles, and their son. By all accounts, Charles and Nancy had a beautiful love story.
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”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?
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She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.