Requiem for Russell Chatham: Artist, writer, rogue

Landscape painter remembered by his Madison fans
Requiem for Russell Chatham: Artist, writer, rogue
Photo from Russell Chatham's obituary/Facebook; lithograph courtesy of Paul Douglas
Russell Chatham and one of his landscape lithographs.

Proof that painter Russell Chatham’s death was underreported came the other day when I sent a note to Paul Douglas and he hadn’t heard the news.

For 15 years, Douglas has operated Douglas Art and Frame on University Avenue in Madison.

We hadn’t yet met when my wife and I stopped in the shop a few years ago, but quickly found common ground when someone — probably me, I don’t know many landscape painters — mentioned appreciating the landscapes of Chatham.

Douglas said he’d recently acquired a few Chatham lithographs. He smiled as he showed them to us. The price point was a bit much for someone on a newspaper salary, but I could have looked at them all day.

Chatham, who died in California on Nov. 10 at 80, was a talented artist, writer, fly fisherman and chef, fond of drink and better at making and spending money than managing it.

“So talented, and really a lovable guy,” Stacy Sandler once told me of Chatham. “But not too good of a businessman.”

Stacy is the daughter of Ralph Sandler, who ran the Madison Civic Center in its early years. She worked for Chatham in Livingston, Montana, at his small publishing company, Clark City Press.

I first learned of Chatham in 1979 with the publication of “Legends of the Fall,” three novellas by Jim Harrison. There was a beautiful Chatham landscape reproduced on the dust jacket cover.

I was curious about the artist. Then, just a few months later in March 1980, the novelist Tom McGuane profiled Chatham in Esquire magazine. McGuane valued Chatham’s art as “powerful evocations of Montana, full of light, shapes and ideas ruled by the most dignified style.” His piece was more a warm appreciation of Chatham’s eccentricities, including bartering paintings for fishing tackle, guns, bartending and other services.

McGuane said Chatham deserved to be famous, and he was soon enough. The writing success of McGuane and Harrison helped. McGuane had moved to Livingston in the late 1960s and, like a magnet, drew an array of other creative artists to Montana.

Douglas told me last week about having been in San Francisco in the 1980s, running a frame shop for a gallery in the city. Douglas is originally from Kenosha and came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the ’70s. In 1980, he moved to San Francisco for grad school and stayed 14 years, moving back to Madison in 1994 to start a family. “

Someone called the gallery” — this was around 1985 — “and said we had to come to this opening tonight at one of the chichi galleries downtown,” Douglas says. “We went mostly for the free liquor and food. They’d said there would be some interesting people. Jack Nicholson was there, Harry Dean Stanton, Peter Fonda, Ed Bradley. It was a Russell Chatham show. The paintings were going for $20,000 to $30,000.”

Yet by 2011, Chatham was broke, a circumstance he attributed to poor Montana land investments. He returned to his native California, telling the San Francisco Chronicle, “My soul possessions in this universe are 10 gray T-shirts and three pairs of overalls.”

I already owned one of his books, a collection of articles titled “Dark Waters.” Chatham was a fine essayist, writing with passion and humor about his obsessions, which included painting, fishing, hunting, eating, drinking and sex.

The lead piece in that book deals with all of them (save painting) and is titled “The Great Duck Misunderstanding.” It’s informative and hilarious. It seems wild duck cooked right is one of the greatest meals on earth but almost nobody knows how to cook it right.

In 2011, I still didn’t own a Chatham painting. Then — I don’t know if his financials woes had anything to do with it — some affordable Chatham posters began to surface. I purchased and framed one, titled “Moonrise Over the Petaluma River.” It’s a long way from an original painting, but it’s a Chatham. It’s still on our living room wall and we have another upstairs. It’s hard to articulate why I like them so much other than to say looking at them brings me peace.

When I heard last month that Chatham had died, I kept looking for a New York Times obituary, and it never came. There were a few stories in Montana and the Bay Area. Chatham’s fame had diminished. I suspect that bothered him not a whit, not like losing friends. Harrison died in 2016. Tom McGuane turns 80 this week.

When I gave Paul Douglas the news, he said he still has several Chatham lithographs at Douglas Art and Frame. I encourage you to visit for a look.

“Initially I wanted them because I like them,” Paul said. “I have a couple up at my house. I love looking at them.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.