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Russell Cowles was born in Algona, Iowa in 1887. His father was a well-known newspaperman, who became publisher of the Des Moines Register and Tribune. His mother studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago and encouraged his interest. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1909 and studied in Paris as well as New York at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students' League with Douglas Volk and Barry Faulkner. He assisted both artists in mural painting.

He received a fellowship to the American Academy at Rome, receiving a Prix De Rome scholarship, and spent five years in Italy, painting and studying much of that time. However, serving in World War I intervened, and he served in the Intelligence Department of the U.S. Navy. In 1920, he returned to America and exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum and also traveled widely including to Japan, China, Egypt, Greece, India, Java, Bali and the ruins of Angkor. In China he spent a year studying with a Chinese master artist.

He was married in Egypt to Eleanor Stanton. In the 1930's he began living part time in Sante Fe, New Mexico where he associated with an art group that included John Marin, Andrew Dasburg, Marsden Hartley, Bror Julius Nordfeldt, and D.H. Lawrence. He also lived part of the year in New York City.

Cowles has had over forty one-person shows, and won many awards including a prize in the 1938 World's Fair in New York and a medal in 1925 from the Art Institute of Chicago.

He was featured in Life Magazine February 9, 1948, pg.74 (article and images of artwork; artist photography by Arnold Newman). Also in "Cowles at his best in ten new exhibits," Art Digest April 1, 1944; Magazine of Art August/September 1941; Art Digest May 1, 1946 (image and article); Art Digest November 15, 1939 (article and image "Autumn Wind").

He died in New York City in 1979.

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