Frederic Remington’s Wild West

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Some biographers have wanted to make of Remington a veritable Odysseus, wandering the West from point to point, crisscrossing its vast expanse, soaking up its every detail until at last he knew it, knew it all, and knew it intimately. He knew (they say) the cowboy, the miner, the army officer, the enlisted man, the Indian scout, the homesteader, the sheepherder, the mountain man—everyone, apparently, but the schoolmarm and the honky-tonk girl. He knew the wild Indian, too—each and every tribe—as well as the Mexican vaquero and the Northwest Mounted Policeman. He knew them all, the story goes, and he gave them to us as a series of distinct, instantly recognizable types. “The depth and accuracy of his knowledge and his unbiased understanding of Indian nature, as well as of the life of the Western white man, marked him out as an authority,” one of his biographers has written. The “Indian nature” and the “Western white man …"—these are improbably broad categories, commensurate in improbability with the claims made for Remington’s “deep and accurate” knowledge of all phases of western life.

There seems to be a desire at work here to make the irtist’s life as exciting as the scenes he painted by implying that he personally witnessed most of what he subsequently depicted. The truth was something else. Perhaps the difficulty lies in assessing the limits of Remington’s actual experiences. In his own writing—and he was a frequent contributor of essays based on firsthand observations, as well as a short-story writer and a two-time novelist —Remington was scrupulously honest about what he saw and did as distinguished from what he had heard about. When his reports on his personal doings out west are stripped of their embellishments and reduced to a skeleton record of what actually happened to him, much of the romantic moonshine is dispelled at once. The cavalry patrols he rode with, for example, rarely saw, let alone exchanged fire with, hostile Indians. Instead they spent gruelling days traversing country that was often exhausting for men and horses, abiding climatic conditions as varied as the bone-chilling cold of a Dakota winter (”cold enough to satisfy a walrus,” Remington wrote) and the blazing heat of an Arizona summer with the thermometer stuck at 125 degrees. His experiences were on the whole perfectly ordinary. He soaked in his own sweat, choked on the dust, suffered the stiffness of breaking into the saddle again, and wondered what on earth he was doing exposing himself to such discomfort. Of course he loved it all, particularly the discomfort, and he reported accurately on what he had experienced.

But Remington was an illustrator for others as well, and he was, moreover, an artist. His personal experiences were steppingstones to imaginative re-creations; what mattered was not whether he had lived a particular episode, but how it fitted into his conception of the Wild West. It was Remington’s peculiar genius to be able to encounter reality, respond to it on a direct, reportorial level, and yet not be overwhelmed by it. Beneath the gritty surface of the western life that he pictured, Remington detected some magic impulse at work, and he cut through the monotony and boredom, the loneliness and isolation, the grinding dreariness of changeless days, to reveal a great, ongoing adventure, awesome in its sweeping power, the fulfillment of his every boyhood dream and, as his dramatic rise to popularity would indicate, the dreams of countless other Americans as well. The Wild West was Remington’s forte. He knew instinctively what would grip his audience and hold it fast.

Remington’s West is not a landscape artist’s paradise. His major oils, viewed with detachment, are remarkably unspecific and unspectacular in terms of setting. For him the West has been reduced to twin bands of powder blue sky and yellow ocher land, a timeless backdrop against which he played out his fantasies of pounding action. He loved the theme of pursuit and flight, of men charging head-on at the viewer while whooping Indians follow on their heels. In The Flight a solitary cowboy is shown in what seems a hopeless race for life. Though his situation is grim and his chances for survival slight, he stares straight ahead, determined to make the best of it. He is, by Remington’s standards, the model of masculine Americanism, a heroic ideal in a land where “life is reduced to its elemental conditions” (as Roosevelt wrote), a struggle for survival. The flight was prelude to another favorite Remington theme, the desperate stand. It could be cowboys, soldiers, or free trappers, it mattered little: they were united in a common cause, a life-or-death defense against superior numbers. Remington preferred to leave the attackers, usually Indians, to the viewer’s imagination. His concern was with the men at bay and the cool, efficient manner in which they comported themselves despite the grave peril they faced. One of his most striking variations on this theme was a splendid oil done in 1905 showing a Crow warrior “ridden down” by a band of Sioux. He stands high on a bluff, war club in hand, a figure of perfect stoicism, prepared to meet death without fear or complaint. No chance of escape remains to him, for his pony is exhausted, glistening with sweat, and the pursuing Sioux are closing in for the kill. The land is pitiless, stripped bare of even a trace of vegetation that could provide some shelter or a place to hide. It is not really the country of the Sioux or the Crow, of course; it is simply Frederic Remington’s favorite arena for violent action, the Wild West.