Frederic Remington images
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Frederic Remington

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"'Art', wrote Frederic Remington in 1905, 'is a she-devil of a mistress, and if at times in earlier days she would not even stoop to my way of thinking, I have persevered and will so continue.'

"He had just been describing one particular "earlier day" around a Montana campfire in 1881, when an old-timer who had also come out there from New York and had since spent his life following the frontier, convinced him that "there is no more West." At which point Remington decided to "try to record some facts around me."

"So doing, he not only aimed himself towards a lucrative career, but helped to inaugurate the world-wide bonanza called the Old West, or the Wild West, of which there would always seem to be more. This would have interested Remington Senior, a man of somewhat venturesome but practical affairs, who was chagrined when in 1879 his son chose the art school at Yale instead of a business course. Young Frederic was even more chagrined when he got there and found at the art school a classic approach to art principles and to drawing. That was when he first noticed the she-devil refusing to stoop.

"Frederic felt she should be down where he was, making pictures. He'd been doing so through most of his childhood in upstate New York, where he had been born in Canton in 1861. By the time his family moved to Ogdensburg eleven years later, he'd already made pictures of actual firehorses and of imaginary frontier battle scenes, and in 1875 his first painting was a glowering Captive Gaul, done on a window shade.

"In college Remington escaped the haughty she-devil for a while on the historic varsity football team of 1879, and as a heavyweight boxer - for both of which sports he was already heftily qualified. Then in 1880 his father died, Yale was abandoned, and after a year or so of clerical jobs Frederic followed his imagination west, as far as Arizona and Indian Territory. And on that trip he met the man who was all out of frontiers.

"'There is no more West.' Remington's lifelong answer to that man - who like other characters of his could have been real or made-up - was both agreement and denial. It was to say, in effect, "Alright, the West is dead. Long live the West." Long live whose West? His, of course. He couldn't do anything about the old man's lost West. He couldn't take his eye and his sketch pad back into time past, and there's little to indicate he wanted to - even later on, after his West seemed to be contaminated by the East. Though many of his paintings and drawings over the years would be staging bygone Western scenes - and as convincingly as possible - his "facts" would be "the facts around" him as he saw them then.

"Those would have to do with a place roomy enough to cherish a young country's adolescence, to allow all-boy behavior further away from the adult constraints of Europe - a place, in a way, to escape art. As a frontier place it gave breathing space to the lifelong, tough youthfulness in Remington, the outdoorsman and incipient soldier, as it did for his collaborator and friend Theodore Roosevelt, and many others.

"Remington's facts, then, were not so much scenic, or even historic, as they were human. The facts, above all, were "men with the bark on," to use his own blithely chauvinistic phrase - and their horses. Cowboys, prospectors, soldiers, Indians - he gave them such energetic reality that some of them who aren't otherwise occupied seem to be mainly concerned with catching our attention.

"And they deserve it. Remington's gift was a huge one, a boyish one, a strongly journalistic and illustrative one, coupled easily with his secondary gift for words. It became harder for him to join it with his evolving aspirations as an artist, coaxed as he was by that she-devil. The joining never seemed complete.

"Meanwhile, finding facts as any kind of reporter meant also finding publishers for the facts, and it took four or five years to get into full production and distribution. During this time Remington married his friend Eva Caten, failed as a Kansas rancher and investor, sold a scattering of pictures, foraged around Mexico on the trail of Geronimo, and tried a little more art study in New York. The angular, "bark-on" vitality of his pictures needed to find acceptance by an editorial art-consciousness which was then marked by gentility, serenity, allegorical moralizing, and a few other refinements that hadn't brushed off on Remington at Yale or anywhere else.

"The door to success, when it opened wide one day in 1886, happened to be the door to the offices of Outing Magazine, whose weary editor turned out with sudden jubilation to be Poultney Bigelow, a cohort from those Yale days: as editor of the Courant he had run Remington's cartoons. But even before he recognized his old friend, Bigelow had recognized the Western gold in his pictures. He bought the entire portfolio, ordered more, and soon the editors of Harper's Weekly, Scribner's, and other established periodicals, who had previously bought a drawing or two, stepped up their interest.

"'These [pictures showed] the men of the real rodeo,' Bigelow later wrote, 'parched in alkali dust, blinking out from barely opened eyelids under the furious rays of an Arizona sun.' The old man's West might be gone; but Remington's cowboys and soldiers were there. Gentility, even in the East, had to give them room.

"Recognition as a visual reporter was naturally welcome. But already it wasn't enough. Beyond the new tours and assignments (including a disappointing one to Russia, Europe, and Africa in 1892 and a grueling one to Cuba with the Rough Riders in 1898), and beyond the illustrating of such authors as Owen Wister, Longfellow, Roosevelt, and of course Remington himself, there began to be the heady stuff of well-received gallery showings. And not only at home: his work won a Silver Medal at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Then in 1891 came an associate membership in the National Academy.

"For all that, it was the good business of the magazine illustrations - the Old West he was renewing - that was now meaning prosperity for the Remingtons. In 1890 they moved out from New York to a house in New Rochelle with room for a library-studio, and for his constantly growing collection of Western props and clothing. Enjoying its views over the water and the Westchester countryside, he gave it an Algonquin Indian name: Endion, "a place where I live." By 1906, however, he felt crowded even there. (Remington, who had been described by a young army friend years before as "a big, goodnatured, overgrown boy [whose] gait was an easy waddle," was something of a crowd all by himself.) A still bigger house and studio (Remington looked leisurely, but he worked hard) were built in 1908 on thirteen acres in Ridgefield, Connecticut. It was just a year later - the day after Christmas, 1909 - that Remington died after an operation for appendicitis.

"But fifteen years before that his negotiations with the she-devil had brought about a whole new range. One of Remington's New Rochelle neighbors was Frederic W. Ruckstull, a successful sculptor. During the early summer of 1895 Ruckstull was at work on a monumental commission. Remington found himself watching with interest, and by late that fall, with some prodding from Ruckstull, he had given shape to his own first sculpture. He took easily and zestfully to modeling in clay, and kept doing so - along with his painting - from this first Bronc Buster to the Stampede of his last months in 1909. His later casting into bronze was done by the venerable lost wax method, under Riccardo Bertelli's skilled guidance at the Roman Bronze Works on Long Island.

"Remington's success in every medium rested on his sure dramatic instincts and on his sense of the scene - the whole lively interest of an event that depended neither on well-known people nor on an allegorical message for its effect, but simply on an emphatic interaction or (in the case of a single figure) a well-bitten characterization. This gift, which showed vividly in the painting and impressively in the sculpture, was and is important to Remington's credentials as an artist. So also is the strong color emphasis that brought compelling mood into the night scenes of his last decade. During this time he was on good terms with some of the new American impressionists; Childe Hassam was a particular friend. Their example encouraged in him an impressionistic corrosion of daytime and sunset colors by light. The critics, on the whole, approved of his results, though occasionally professing to miss the old clarity.

"Pleased as he was to be working (though hardly making his ample living) as an artist, Remington seemed to feel at times that he hadn't yet chosen a single, definable career. In that 1905 comment he implied that the she-devil of art had at last decided to "stoop" to his way of thinking, but that perseverance was still needed. It was as though the artist and the illustrator in him had never really taken the full measure of each other, didn't quite trust each other.

"Might it not be possible, after three quarters of a century, to bring these two roles together as one achievement, to enjoy the cross-pollination between realistic reportage and creative vision? With all Remington's perseverance this was difficult for him, and critics today still seem to find the job bothersome. In the first place, it's a nuisance when an artist spills from one classification to another. We prefer people whom we can sort out and label: painter, sculptor, impressionist, hard-edge realist, or whatever. Please, not all four in one man! Run him through the sorter again, and he probably comes out, like Daumier, a journalist who did some Sunday painting. Masterpieces? Impossible.

"And then there are those many-faceted Remingtonian chauvinisms, from all-boy to all-American. Does that last, we ask pointedly, take in the American Indian? Sure, Remington went to Wounded Knee and was close to the massacre, but did he even know the right questions, let alone the answers?

"It may be useful to remind ourselves that Remington was much nearer the hostilities than we are, and that the army he so admired did not, after all, start the war. He probably would have agreed with General George Crook, an early veteran of frontier service, who when asked what he found hardest in the Indian wars, said this: "The hardest thing is to fight against those whom you know are right."

"...No, the artist doesn't show American soldiers to be monsters, as these Indians are finally cornered and exterminated. Why should he? The job was a tough one, and demanded bravery. Yet neither does he suggest, even in the title, that these men are saviors of their country. Though he accepts the simplistic term "bushwhacking" for this kind of operation, he brings to its dirty work a reasonable objectivity. More than that, he brings an artist's consummate skill and - it seems possible - a beginning of incredulity.

"A good many of his peers were no doubt still mouthing the old "only-good-Indian-a-dead-Indian" maxim. Not so this "chauvinist." The soldiers he paints here are of course dogged and tired, the ones who are still standing. But there's a stunned look to them as well. And there's something in their eyes - and therefore in the artist's mind - asking "What are we doing?" and "What have we done?"

"It may turn out, in the longer view, that Frederic Remington was an educable journalist who was also - and sometimes in the same inseparable act - a master artist."

- From "Great Masterpieces by Frederic Remington", by Louis Chapin.

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Frederic Remington Images

1898 Wicked Pony
1899 Missing
1900 The Norther
1901 The Cheyenne
1903 Mountain Man
1905 The Rattlesnake
1905 Ridden Down
1905 The Smoke Signal
1906 The Outlaw
1907 The Cavalry Charge
1908 The Stampede
1909 The Bronco Buster
1909 Trooper of the Plains
1909 The Outlier

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