Frederic Remington’s Wild West


Recently Remington has received attention chiefly for his contribution to the romantic myth of the American cowboy. He, along with his friends Roosevelt and Wister, helped transform the working cowboy into a cultural hero, “as hardy and self-reliant as any man who ever breathed,” according to Roosevelt, “a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures,” to borrow Wister’s description of that hero of a million daydreams, the Virginian. Remington’s illustrative work for both authors constituted his most direct contribution to the same heroic image. His very first appearance in Harper’s Weekly involved a cowboy subject, and his popular first bronze, done in 1895, was called The Bronco Buster . Cowboys were to him, Remington acknowledged, what “gems and porcelains are to others.” But it was not as the depictor of the cowboy that Remington stands supreme; his contemporary Charles M. Russell would far surpass him in that regard. Rather it was as the artist-historian of the Indian-fighting army that he had no peers. As Wister himself observed: ”… Remington with his piercing and yet imaginative eye has taken the likeness of the modern American soldier and stamped it upon our minds with a blow as clean-cut as is the impression of the American Eagle upon our coins in the Mint.”

Remington rarely harked back in his work to some earlier, idvllic time “when the land was God’s,” as Charlie Russell would say, and the world was full of a gentle wonder and mystery. His West was ever the setting for clash and confrontation, and the struggle for mastery between red men and white was its most compelling theme. As a boy his head was full of fantasies of Indian fighting, and as a young man he had followed the trail of Geronimo and the Sioux Ghost Dancers. He never did see a real battle between Indians and soldiers, but he knew intuitively what it was all about. It was savagery and civilization pitted in a death struggle whose final outcome was a certainty but whose little skirmishes were the stuff of epic: miniatures of that larger testing that had molded a pioneering race of men. His vision of the Indian wars was compressed into one mammoth oil entitled, with purposeful vagueness, A Cavah-y Scrap. Completed in 1909, Remington’s last year of life, it is a full-blown summation of his theme, as cavalrymen and Indians galore charge across a Hat ocher plain under a sky of solid blue. It is also an oddly disconcerting painting. It is rigidly separated into three bands: the sky, the tangled mass of horses and men, and the ground. Onlyone fallen cavalryman in the left foreground, and one rearing horse and rider in the exact center, break this pattern. For such a stirring scene, full of figures in frenzied motion, the canvas is strangely placid to the eye. This impression is not merely a matter of composition and coloring, either. Remington seems to have intended a highly stylized effect: a master narrator in paint, he has left his story line here quite indeterminate. Are the troopers charging through a band of Indians? Are they pursuing Indians? Or are they being pursued? Since the troopers and the Indians appear to be galloping in two parallel lines across the canvas, from right to left, it is unclear what precisely is going on and, for that matter, who is winning. Remington apparently wanted it that way; his painting deals not with history but with myth. It is as structured and timeless as the ritual drama it depicts, the winning of the Wild West.


Remington recorded both sides in the clash between red and white, and some have praised him for his sensitive understanding of the American Indian. But Remington understood the Indian onlv in a strictly limited sense, as a curious visitor in search of quaint specimens. “I came to do the wild tribes and I do it,” he informed his wife in 1888 during a two-month tour of the southwestern Indian reservations. When he wrote up his experiences for Century the following year, he expressed the belief that “no white man can ever penetrate the mystery of… [the Indians'] mind or explain the reason of their acts.” For “the red man is a mass of glaring incongruities. He loves and hates in such Strange fashions, and is constant and inconstant at such unusual times, that I often think he has no mental process, but is the creature of impulse.” It was, even in 1889, an anachronistic judgment, and it brought a mild rebuke in the same journal that published it: “The Indian character is as varied as the character of the white man who sits in judgment upon him. … No one who has any real knowledge of the matter ever thinks of the Indian to-day as controlled by any single passion or as represented by any single type of character.” Remington, however, frequently did just that, and the illustrator of The Oregon Trail shared Parkman’s opinion that the Indian and the white man were permanently separated by “an impassable gulf.”


Try as he might to bridge it, this gulf remained for Remington. With the exception of a few of his later oils his Indian paintings always exhibited an emotional distance. He was an unlikely choice, therefore, when he was commissioned to illustrate a sumptuous new edition of Longfellow’s Hiawatha in 1889. Though the paintings and pen and inks he executed were popular in their time, Remington was not in entire sympathy with his subject. His literal, realistic approach did little to enhance the rich, mystical