Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on May 25, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the C.M. Russell Museum. The article previously appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Russell's West Quarterly, published by the C.M. Russell Museum. Images accompanying the text in the Quarterly were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the Quarterly, please contact the C.M. Russell Museum at either this web address or phone number:
Charles Fritz, "An Artist with the Corps of Discovery"
by Sharon McGowan
The question invariably asked during a discussion of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is, "Why didn't they take an artist with them?" The short answer is: we don't know. The "Writingest explorers of all time" did not say, not even with 1,123,445 words in their journals, diaries and field notes!". "I wished for the pencil of Salvator Rosa or the pen of Thompson, that I might be enabled to give to the enlightened world some just idea of this truly magnificent and sublimely grant object" wrote Captain Meriwether Lewis in his journal of June 13, 1805. However, that oversight has allowed generations of artists to use their imagination and the Corps' historical records to envision and recreate the astounding journey across the American wilderness two hundred years ago. Today an artist from Billings, Montana has recaptured the entire Lewis and Clark Trail in his suite of paintings, Charles Fritz, an Artist with the Corps of Discovery. This is the first collection ever to comprehensively illustrate the Lewis and Clark Journals. A lifelong interest in history and a request by an art collector in the late 1990's were the catalysts that began this wonderful collection of paintings.
Charles Fritz is best known for his plein-aire paintings of western history. Plein-aire painting along the Lewis and Clark Trail, especially in Montana, is not for the timid, but Fritz has overcome the wind, cold, heat, sudden storms, often difficult terrain and insects to recapture the sites the hearty explorers once visited. He has done painstaking, exacting research along the trail and envisions himself as the expedition's artist as he paints in the first person. Each of his more than sixty paintings references more than one journal entry and is accompanied by additional text embellishing the painting's context in the collection.
Not only has Fritz studied the Lewis and Clark Journals extensively, but he has traveled and camped out along the entire route from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast at least twice. Some times he made three or more visits to a site to best capture the scenes depicted in the written journals. He visited the sites at the same time of year as the expedition so that he could accurately capture the colors, lighting, flora, fauna, weather, clothing, equipment and the people. During this time he consulted frequently with Lewis and Clark scholars, especially Stephen Ambrose, author of the best-selling book "Undaunted Courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West" . After Ambrose's death Fritz continued to consult with the author's daughter, Stephanie Ambrose Tubbs, a well-known scholar and author in her own right.
Painting from life and on location or en plein-aire, is a time honored approach and one employed by turn of the century artists whom Fritz admires. Painting directly from life allows him to respond emotionally and energetically to the ever-changing light and the details and personality of the subject before him. The low, cold, wintery sun and misty vapors of Fort Mandan, the serenity of early morning along the White Cliffs and the sparkling froth and roar of the Great Falls of the Missouri are so well captured by the artist that the viewer can imagine himself there with the intrepid exporers.
Charles Fritz is a three time recipient of the C.M. Russell Auction's Best of Show Award and the prestigious 1993 Lee M. Loeb Memorial Award. His work is part of the permanent collection of numerous museums including the Denver Art Museum, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, and the Charles H. MacNider Museum in his former hometown of Mason City, Iowa and our own C.M. Russell Museum.
Charles Fritz, An Artist with the Corps of Discovery exhibit was organized by the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana and will tour the country during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Celebration. After its run at the Russell, the exhibit will move to Atlanta's Booth Museum of Western Art and the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana during the summer of 2006.
About the author:
Charles Fritz "An Artist with the Corps of Discovery" is a special exhibition of approximately 50 large-scale paintings by Billings artist, Charles Fritz. The exhibition is being shown at the C.M. Russell Museum May 20, 2005 - August 21, 2005. Portraying key points along the expedition's route, the exhibition is the result of the artist's thorough research of the journals and years of painting studies in landscapes across the country.
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