Frederic Remington’s Wild West

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A fascination with the military, horses, and the outdoors was thus a hallmark of Remington’s career until he died. They represent a constancy that is revealing about him, both as man and as artist, and help explain why one army officer in 1890 described him as “a big, good-natured, overgrown boy.” For by the time Remington entered the Highland Military Academy at Worcester, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1876, the rough outlines of his future were already taking shape. The boy had never much enjoyed classroom studies, but he had developed an interest in art and some facility at sketching. Examples of his youthful work show a romantic preoccupation with Indian fighting on the far frontier. “Your favorite subject is soldiers,” he wrote another budding artist at this time. “So is mine. …” Custer’s last stand (which had just occurred) and other less celebrated incidents of the plains Indian wars were doubtless on Remington’s mind, and the West itself had begun to exert a strong pull on him. But his parents were socially and economically prominent enough to want a proper education and a respectable career for their son. Thus in the fall of 1878, after toying with the notion of studying journalism at Cornell, Remington entered Yale as a student in the School of Fine Arts.

He was by this time already a husky, thickset young man, sandy-haired, smooth-faced, and blue-eyed. His features, dominated by a prominent nose and a rather sullen mouth, were not especially attractive; but he was physically prepossessing, with the neck of a heavyweight boxer and the muscular build of a natural athlete. In an amusing selfassessment, written with his characteristic verve when he was only fifteen, Remington took stock as follows: I don’t amount to anything in particular. I can spoil an immense amount of good grub at any time in the day. … I go a good man on muscle. My hair is short and stiff, and I am about five feet eight inches and weigh one hundred and eighty pounds. There is nothing poetical about me.

The reference to spoiling good grub was prophetic. Over the years Remington’s weight swelled alarmingly, and he waged a ceaseless, futile war against corpulence until at last the proud athlete was encased in a prison of flesh. But in 1878 he was every inch a young man in his physical prime.

Remington’s year and a half at Yale exposed him to formal instruction in the principles and elements of art and to studio courses in drawing and perspective. The consensus is that he profited little from the experience and seemed to enjoy Yale in direct proportion to the number of hours he spent on the football field instead of in the classroom. He was a first-string forward, or rusher, on the 1879 team that included among its halfbacks Walter C. Camp, the legendary “Father of Football.” Perhaps football became Remington’s substitute for soldiering. It was Stephen Crane who in 1900 would write about his classic novel of men at war, The Red Radge of Courage , that he had “never smelled even the powder of a sham battle” but had got his “sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.” Football in Remington’s time was a brutally physical contest played with only minimal padding and protection, and he gloried in its bloodier aspects. Years later, when critics attacked football for precisely these qualities and spoke of banning it from the universities, Remington snorted contemptuously: “I do not believe in all this namby-pamby talk and I hope the game will not be emasculated and robbed of its heroic qualities, which is its charm. …” Remington’s brief football career, usually seen merely as an assertion of his preference for robust physical activity over training in art, may in fact have served his art generously. It remained until 1898 his only battlefield experience.

Remington’s studies terminated abruptly upon the death of his father in February, 1880. He chose to drop out of Yale, and after dabbling with a clerkship or two in Albany, fighting off boredom by boxing and horseback riding, and probably squandering a small advance on his patrimony, he at last resolved to satisfy an old ambition by going west. He left for Montana in August, 1881, “to make a trial of life on a ranche,” the local paper reported, though biographers have speculated that his real motive may have been disappointment in love. Two years earlier Remington had met and begun courting the one girl, Eva Caten, who in all his life could distract him from his exclusively masculine pursuits. He got as far as asking her father’s permission for her hand in marriage, but his suit was spurned for the excellent reason that he had no prospects and no particular ambition in life. Whatever his motives were in going to Montana, Remington did not stay long, perhaps two and a half months at the outside. But he had got his taste of the West, sketched some of what he had seen, and even enjoyed a small but real triumph as an artist when Harper’s Weekly for February 25, 1882, published a redrawn version of one of his efforts under the title “Cow-boys of Arizona.”