Frederic Remington’s Wild West

PrintPrintEmailEmail
 

The winter of 1885-86 was a lean and trying one for the young couple. They had moved into a small apartment in Brooklyn in order to be nearer the market for magazine illustrations. Two of Remington’s sketches had been redrawn and published in Harper’s Weekly , but it was not until January 9, 1886, that he finally appeared on the cover under his own name. Appropriately, the subject was “Indian Scouts on Geronimo’s Trail” and featured a soldier on horseback, his head turned away scanning the distance for signs of hostiles. He is accompanied by four Indians jogging along at his side and what appears to be a Mexican scout trailing behind. The officer cuts a dashing figure with his hat set at a rakish angle, framing the strong lines of his pro- file. The Indian scouts, in comparison, are small, rather scrawny men, wild-looking but unimpressive. The picture exhibits all the faults of Remington’s early work—the composition cluttered and lacking focus, the figures weakly drawn and somewhat out of proportion, and the perspective unsure. Some of these difficulties could be attributed to the engraver, but on the whole they typified Remington’s paintings at this time. He had an arresting subject, and it bore an air of authenticity. But he yet had much to learn about his craft. Bowing to necessity, he enrolled in the Art Students League and began attending classes in March, 1886. But his impatience with formal instruction won out, and by June he was off to follow in Geronimo’s tracks once again and acquaint himself further with the desert Southwest.

The year and a half at Yale and the few months at the Art Students League comprised all the formal training Remington ever got, though the astonishing growth in his technical competence over the next few years, and indeed throughout his whole career, indicates that he was always willing to learn and improve. By the end of 1886 his work had already gained considerable sophistication and was beginning to appear with some frequency not only in Harper’s Weekly but in other magazines as well. Remington’s breakthrough into regular illustrating came late in that year when Poultney Bigelow, owner and editor of Outing magazine, bought his portfolio of western sketches and thereafter kept him busy with a slew of commissions. Recalling his introduction to Remington’s art, Bigelow remembered himself bent over his desk one day, tired from overwork and in no mood to be disturbed. Suddenly a portfolio of drawings was shoved into his hand, and without looking up he gave them a quick glance. It was, he wrote, like receiving an “electric shock.” Instantly perceiving in these rough drawings a vitality and mastery of the subject matter that technical deficiencies could not conceal, Bigelow now for the first time looked up at the artist and recognized his former Yale classmate, Fred Remington. It is a fine tale, though perhaps a touch apocryphal; one suspects in it more the workings of the “old-boy” system than pure coincidence. At any rate, Outing marked a turning point in Remington’s career. The demand for his work was beginning to equal his ability to produce, and commissions were streaming in from some of the most prestigious magazines of the day. Besides Harper’s Weekly and Outing, St. Nicholas, Youth’s Companion, Century, Scribner’s, and Harper’s Monthly all carried his work by 1890.

 
 

Remington had arrived. Thereafter his career as an illustrator constitutes an unbroken tale of popularity and rising income, of moves into increasingly elaborate quarters at more impressive addresses, of a social set that included the rich and powerful—in short, of dramatic, overwhelming success. It is a tale, moreover, that cannot be understood without reference to the times in which Remington was working.

Americans by the iSgo’s had become uncomfortably aware of the magnitude of change that had overtaken the country since the Civil War. The social consequences of industrial growth and urban sprawl were being felt in the midst of a depression. For all the complacency and confidence that a firm faith in progress bred, unrest had manifested itself in an agrarian protest movement that promised to exert a decided impact on the national political scene, in labor agitation in the cities, and in a mounting fear of the so-called new immigration from southern Europe, which threatened to swamp the American melting pot with “undesirable” elements. In conjunction with these worries Americans were also becoming aware of the fact that their frontier, that vacant land that had stretched out on the border of the nation’s consciousness as a symbol and a promise since the formation of the Republic, was no more. The Wild West had disappeared, and while there was much to applaud in that fact, there was something sad and regrettable, too. Poets and writers had already taken to lamenting its demise, and romantic historians were speculating on the implications of the frontier’s absence for the American character. The nation’s youth was over, but fortunately Frederic Remington and a handful of others had been there to see the last few years of its exuberant existence and leave behind an imperishable record of a phase of the American experience that would never be repeated.