Museum Minute: Charles Russell The Horse Thief?

Jan 2, 2020

When Law Dulls The Edge of Chance by Charles Russell
Credit Whitney Western Art Museum

The Charles Russell painting titled “When Law Dulls The Edge of Chance” depicts two North-West Mounted Police or Monty's disarming two horse thieves. Karen McWhorter, the curator of the Whitney Western Art Museum, said the painting has had many different names and one of those included the phrase “horse thieves”

“We see that one of them has already been disarmed. He's standing looking pretty despondent. What I think is quite funny is that he’s holding up his pants because what would've been his belt also was his holster and the Mounties have taken his holster,” described McWhorter. “So here, he is kind of embarrassed looking down at the ground pulling up his pants. The other has his hand raised in the air, and he's being disarmed by one of the policeman.”

One prominent Russell scholar believes that the standing horse thief is humorously autobiographical. McWhorter said it’s thought that Russell was complicit in a horse theft when he was in Canada.

“He and a buddy rode back to Montana, his buddy riding on a borrowed horse that he forgot conveniently to return. So, some have said the similarities between the standing figures face. The hats angle, the shock of hair across his forehead, it looks a lot like Russell’s self-portraits, so it might be a nod to that experience,” said McWhorter.