US Stamps

John M. Hotchner

Cowboy artist featured in painting on Montana stamp

July 16, 2018 09:45 AM

  • The Montana Statehood Centennial commemorative was issued Jan. 15, 1989.
  • The Montana Statehood Centennial stamp is based on this painting by Charles M. Russell. Image used with permission, Charles M. Russell and His Friends by C.M. Russell, oil on canvas, 1922; Montana Historical Society, Mackay Collection, X1952.01.10.
  • A plate block of the Montana Statehood Centennial stamp shows that it was printed by lithography, using four colors (the plate numbers next to the top stamps), and intaglio for the text (indicated by the “1” next to the bottom stamps). The color blocks at the bottom show ink intensity and color registration.
  • A 1964 5¢ stamp commemorates the birth centennial of Charles M. Russell.

U.S. Stamp Notes by John M. Hotchner

It is not just some anonymous cowboy sitting atop the horse in the United States 25¢ Montana Statehood Centennial stamp (Scott 2401) issued Jan. 15, 1989.

Well-known American painter Charles M. Russell was the artist, and he put himself in the painting titled C.M. Russell and Friends. The Montana Centennial Commission recommended that painting as a candidate for the stamp design.

Two other Russell paintings and additional candidates by other artists were considered by the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, but the 1922 painting by the former cowboy was selected.

Figure 1 shows the stamp, and Figure 2 depicts the painting. It is important to have it as a reference so we can understand how Bradbury Thompson and Peter Cocci adapted it for the stamp design.

The following description of the painting, the stamp and the process is repeated from the 1989 Linn’s U.S. Stamp Yearbook by George Amick:

C.M. Russell and Friends is one of the artist’s largest works. It measures 43 inches by 81 inches … He painted it in 1922, four years before his death, for Malcolm S. Mackay, a Wall Street executive who as a young man had homestead in Montana.

“The ex-cowboy depicted himself on a horse standing on a grassy knoll. As USPS described the design, ‘Russell’s left arm extends toward Square Butte and the inviting, spacious plains of central Montana. Five cowhands ride past Russell in the lower right.’ In fact, however, the original painting also showed four mounted Indians riding ahead of the cowboys, and one is waving to Russell. These were cropped out for the stamp design and a bison skeleton in the left foreground was also deleted. In all, designer Thompson reduced the painting by about half its width to make it fit in the horizontal commemorative format.”

Russell (1864-1926) was an acclaimed artist of the old American West with more than 2,000 paintings of cowboys, Indians and western U.S. and Canadian landscapes to his credit. Born in St. Louis, Mo., he went to Montana around age 16 and spent most of the rest of his life there.

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A copy of the letter giving permission to the Postal Service to use the painting has recently come to hand and it reads as follows:

“We are pleased to be able to lend our image of the C.M. Russell oil in our collection, C.M. Russell and His Friends, for a postage stamp. This project will be just one of the ways that Montana celebrates its statehood centennial.

“Permission is granted the United States Postal Service to use this image for a one-time reproduction; for purposes of issuing a postal stamp. All fees for reproduction will be waived. If possible, we would like to receive a block of the first issue stamps and a cachet if one is produced for our Russell philatelic collection.

“The original oil, C.M. Russell and His Friends, hangs in our Mackay Gallery of C.M. Russell art and is part of the Mackay Collection. Should you have any additional questions regarding the credit for the painting or information about its history please do not hesitate to contact us.”

I am sure that the Postal Service was able to do better than giving a block of stamps and a cachet to the Montana Historical Society!

According to Amick’s report on the Montana Statehood Centennial stamp, it was not the only one to show one of Russell’s works: “The 4¢ Range Conservation stamp of 1961 (Scott 1176) showed a portion of the drawing The Trail Boss, and the 5¢ C.M. Russell commemorative of 1964 (Scott 1243), issued on the centennial of the artist’s birth, used his painting Jerked Down.”

Figure 4 depicts the 1964 stamp.