A Heritage of Imagery of the Old West - Frederic Remington

26 December 1909, the American painter, sculptor and author Frederic Remington died in Ridgefield, Connecticut, of chronic appendicitis at the age of 48.

"My drawing is done entirely from memory. I never use a camera now. The interesting never occurs in nature as a whole, but in pieces. It's more what I leave out than what I add." (Frederic Remington)

Frederic Remington “The Flight” (1895)

During the decades following the U.S. Civil War, the vast territories west of the Missouri, the American frontier, rapidly turned from something that soon became known as the “Old West” into organised federal states. The railroad spanned the continent, the telegraph spread information in a blink of an eye, the vast herds of buffalo that once roamed the Great Plains were decimated to a couple of hundred specimens, the last military actions were fought against the Native Americans and the first nations were packed up in reservations and law and order found their way into the region. Accompanying this process was the creation of myths, first in the dime novels of the 1870s, Wild West shows touring the east coast and Europe with a sensational success and writers like Zane Grey and Owen Wister followed the footsteps of James Fenimore Cooper and contributed to lay the foundations of the legends of the “Wild West” while visual artists captured their own vision of the West on canvas along with the apparently impartial images photographers distributed. And while painters like Bodmer and Catlin preserved the West with an eye on ethnography in the antebellum years and Bierstadt and Moran glorified overwhelming nature and insignificance of man, others celebrated the triumph of man and did their own to generate legends with a realistic approach and a strong Romantic flavour, painters like Charles Marion Russell and Frederic Remington.

Frederic Remington: "Shotgun Hospitality" (1908)

in time to see the rest of the West as it was before westernised civilisation completely took over, Remington travelled the region for years, staying for a couple of months and returning with an imagery that became iconic. Born in 1861 in Canton, New York, he took art classes at Yale but found boxing and football rather more interesting, became a businessman in Kansas City and soon used his considerable artistic talent to produce illustrations that appeared in publications like “Collier’s Weekly” and “Harper’s Magazine”, often illustrating the tales of Owen Wister and satisfying the Easterner’s and Europeans hunger for adventures from the frontier. He continued to be iconic as a war correspondent during the Spanish American War of 1898, wrote a couple of novels and when public interest slowly ebbed away from the “Old West” towards even more fantastic tales, Remington moved from the sujets that made him popular all over the world, tried his hand at sculpting, painted impressionistic landscapes and regretted that he could not paint en plein air, since his obesity that had grown immense over the years of living the good life kept him finally studio bound.

Frederic Remington: "Indians Simulating Buffalo" (1908)

Leaving a heritage of imagery behind that became formative for popular imagination of a legendary era like few other artists did, Remington’s style was never naturalistic in the sense of most European artists understood the approach. Even though he fully grasped the stylistic devices of capturing the illusion of perspective, spaciousness and materiality as well as the accuracy of depicting the anatomy of man and beast – he was one of the first American painter who depicted the gait of a galloping horse correctly – his naturalism is determined by his urge to create legends and even if his sujets are thoroughly virile, he walks a narrow line between art and kitsch. Nevertheless, he captured, in his own words “the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever” and “saw the living, breathing end of three American centuries of smoke and dust and sweat" and transported the perception of what he saw in such a masterful manner that if one thinks of the “Old West” and the image of a cowboy, he probably follows a visual myth created by Remington, at least to a certain degree, even today.

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