The Many Roles of Remington
The multitalented artist preserved the West in paint and bronze
COMING away from a recent exhilarating exhibition of Frederic Remington's work, however impressive the pictures, one finds oneself in a certain dilemma. The artist is shown as something of a forgotten genius, yet the more cautious viewer will have at the back of his mind the nagging question of ``Lady or Tiger?'' Behind one door is the authentic master. Behind the other an excellent illustrator-sculptor-journalist. Which door do we open?
The American artist has recently come into his own, insofar that he is seriously considered by the world in general; once, by and large, he enjoyed a temporary and local repute. The early painters of the 19th century, the Hudson River School, and the men who came after them like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran have indeed become fairly well established abroad.
Currently many relatively unknown artists are praised as discoveries on their own continent - sometimes partly due to the lamentable connection of art and money. The case of Remington is perhaps a classic example.
Frederic Remington was born in 1861 in the small town of Canton, New York, almost on the Canadian border, where his father was the proprietor of a local paper. Later at Yale, he studied art for nearly a year and a half, his only formal training in this field. Clearly enough, he was immensely endowed with natural talent.
Losing his father while he was still at the university and without taking a degree, he left for the far West, enriched by what was then a considerable inheritance.
Here he soon squandered everything he had and was obliged to support himself with his brush, his only remaining resource. He met with immediate success and was both popular and prosperous for the rest of his rather short life.
For many years he produced a great number of drawings and sketches for Harper's Weekly and other publications. Initially these were, on occasion, sufficiently faulty to need correction by staff artists, but this situation rapidly changed; Remington was quick to learn.
He had a fondness for narrative, wanting his pictures to tell a story, and above all, a tale of action. His canvases are full of characters - Indians, cowboys, soldiers, and adventurers - all engaged in active pursuits and with appropriate settings. These caught the public imagination, and indeed they were very good.
At a period when many admirable artists were illustrators, Remington aspired to much more than that, and would disclaim any attempt to so classify him. His scenes were all placed in the West, for which he had an intense sentimental attachment - he loved to visit and paint it, but never wished to settle there, being very much an Easterner at heart.
Possessing strong commercial instincts, he sensed the new territory of America was ``news'' and wanted to be part of making that news, saying for instance that ``cowboys are cash,'' drawing and sculpting them consciously for profit as well as art.
A complicated man, he had many contradictory traits - he loved talk and long nights of conversation, yet would crave solitude.
He mourned the passing of the West he had seen in his youth with its conflicts, its Army encampments, riders, desperadoes, stagecoaches, and bison.
Though arrogant and snobbish, his personality was evidently disarming, and above all there was the constant evidence of his astonishing talents and unflagging industry as he painted, drew, sculpted, worked on his brilliant equine bronzes, and wrote. A reporter and a war correspondent, he was a writer of many vigorous short stories and of two novels, ``John Ermine of the Yellowstone'' and ``The Way of an Indian.''
His knowledge of anatomy, and perhaps most remarkably of horses in action, was outstanding - he adored horses and was constantly and brilliantly producing work of them.
He also loved the martial arts and the army, longing to see real war, not just the skirmishes, sorties, and forays he had witnessed in the West. Finally he had his wish: He was sent to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, but once he saw real conflict, he was sickened and disillusioned.
A COMPOUND of the sophisticate and the child, he was more and more unable to reconcile himself to the passage of events, or to adjust to them, but his productivity did not slacken; his talents continued to flourish.
As the years passed his style underwent certain changes, as he became influenced by the Impressionists; he came to enjoy painting pictures which were simply landscapes, not his usual canvases crowded with men and horses, often in conflict.
The picture ``Coming to the Call'' is not typical of him; still and remote, it gives a feeling of coldness and quiet. The moose, with its great branching antlers, is silhouetted against the brilliant sky, both reflected in the water which forms the foreground.
The strong yellow, tinged with roseate hues, contrasts with the dark, blackish green of the headland - the effect is startling. It seems almost as though we could hear the call of the moose breaking that silence. Lady or Tiger, no one can deny that this is a wonderful picture.
President Theodore Roosevelt said of Remington (in a speech in Wyoming after his death), ``The Indian is civilized, the cowboy is passing.... One man's work, however, will preserve them for all time in pictures and in bronze ... this man was Remington.''