Frederic Remington’s Wild West

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Rum and that lifelong fondness for “good grub” had played havoc with Yale’s starting forward, the companion in saddle of army officers, cowboys, and Indian scouts. His weight had risen slowly through the iSgo’s—he weighed 240 in 1897—and by the end he was pushing 300. He could no longer mount a horse or stoop over to pick up a tennis ball, and even walking had become an effort. His friend Augustus Thomas remembered: The waning of his great strength was a more sensitive subject with him than his increasing weight, which produced the condition. Gradually in our Sunday walks, the hills grew steeper for him. His favorite ruse for disguising the strain on him was to stop occasionally and survey the landscape: “Look there, Tommy, how that land lies. I could put a company of men back of that stone wall and hold it against a thousand until they flanked me.” As with the Southern gentleman who used to look out of the window after passing the decanter to his guest, it was the part of friendship on these occasions to multiply details of the suppositious fortifications until the commander regained his wind. Children regarded Remington’s “big bottom” with awe when he came to visit (”… how that man would eat,” a waitress at an Adirondacks hotel later remembered. “My, my, my, how that man would eat!"), and Eva bluntly referred to him as “my massive husband.” There is something a bit pathetic in all this; throughout his life Remington had subscribed, rather noisily, to a rigorous code of masculinity. Thus his bloated condition was not just a matter of eating and drinking too much, it was a matter of self-indulgence and softening. It was, in brief, the defeat of a personal ethic.

 

At forty-seven Remington was finished playing cowboy and soldier. He and Eva had built and occupied a country estate near Ridgefield, Connecticut, early in 1909. Their closest friends and neighbors were the Hepburns, and A. Barton Hepburn, though he enjoyed big-game hunting, was not exactly a “man with the bark on” or a self-abnegating army officer in a Sibley tent quaffing a brew with his mates while a blizzard howled across the Dakota badlands outside. He was president of the Chase National Bank and represented a pinnacle of success in the business world equal to Remington’s own in the world of art. It was time to sit back and enjoy the good things in life, the pleasures earned by that success; the erstwhile Westerner was con- tent to live out his remaining days as a country gentleman.

His remaining days, as it turned out, were sadly few. Remington had complained of “belly aches” periodically in 1909, and a particularly severe one a few days before Christmas brought the doctors out to perform an emergency appendectomy. It was too late to save him—peritonitis had already fatally damaged his system—but he was cheerful and able to open presents on Christmas morning. The next day he was dead at forty-eight.

During a professional career spanning less than a quarter of a century Remington had left behind nearly three thousand works of art, including pencil and pen sketches, pastels, water colors, oils, and bronzes, as well as two novels and five collections of stories and essays—almost all of them concerned with his commanding theme, the Wild West. At the end he had attained his personal summit, recognition by his contemporaries not only as a gifted illustrator but also as an accomplished artist. It was not, for Frederic Remington, a bad time to leave the scene.