All five sons, including Russell, went to Yale and all became members of Skull and Bones. Russell was to prove the maverick, however, and until he came along all the other males in the family went from Yale into the family silk business. According to Helen Knapp, Russell’s parents were “startled but acquiescent” when he informed them that he wanted to make a career as an artist. It should be noted that two of Russell’s great-uncles, Seth Wells Cheney (181065) and John Cheney (180195), were painters and noted steel engravers so he, too, was following a family tradition.
After graduating from Yale in 1904, he began work at the Art Students League in New York, studying under William Merritt Chase (18491916) and Kenyon Cox (18651919). These two men approached the teaching of art in very different ways. Cox had been a pupil of Leon Gerome in Paris, a painter who was known for his glacial classicism. Cox kept his students drawing from plaster casts for two years before they were allowed to put brush to canvas. Chase, on the other hand, taught his pupils to paint with gusto and enjoyment. Chase was a very influential figure in the New York art scene and introduced the public and private collectors to the works of Manet and the Impresssionists for the first time.
In 1907 Cheney embarked for Paris where he studied under Jean-Paul Laurens at the Academie Julian. Laurens (18381921) was a history teacher whose ultra-realistic works strove for photographic clarity. Cheney seldom attempted this academic realism in his own work.
While he was in Paris, Cheney reconnected with his first teacher from Hartford, the Maine-born artist Walter Griffin (18611935), who had also studied under Jean-Paul Laurens. Griffin, who was a close friend of Childe Hassam, became a mentor to Cheney, who was twenty years his junior. In later years they were to paint together in the south of France and Cheney felt he learned a lot from Griffin. In 1930 Cheney painted a double portrait of himself and Griffin in the coastal town of Cassis now in the Portland Museum of Art. While working on the double portrait, Cheney remarked “He’s a savage old feller, in spite of a friendly smile, and I want to get that in.”