SI Vault
 
He Went To See The West Die
Robert Cantwell
August 11, 1975
Most critics ignore Remington as an artist, a few see him only as an interesting phenomenon in the history of American painting. Yet his works endure, brilliant artifacts from a bygone time, and one recently sold for $175,000, a record for Western art.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 11, 1975

He Went To See The West Die

Most critics ignore Remington as an artist, a few see him only as an interesting phenomenon in the history of American painting. Yet his works endure, brilliant artifacts from a bygone time, and one recently sold for $175,000, a record for Western art.

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

But he came West again, many times, although the sense of mission that dominated his early trips was lacking. And sometimes he wrote with self-mockery of his illusions. Invited to shoot ducks and prairie chickens in North Dakota, he found it mildly ironic to be riding in a luxurious private railway car with wealthy businessmen and retired generals who "interrupted conversations by recalling to each other's memory where some acres of men were slain." With General Miles he hunted grizzlies on the New Mexican ranch of an English sportsman. They rode for three days into rough mountain country, with cavalrymen, ranch hands, escort wagons, pack trains and bloodhounds. Remington felt uncomfortable about hunting on those terms, though it was not unsportsmanlike, for only "the most desperate riding will bring you up with a bear in the awful country they affect." But when he saw the silvertip run to exhaustion and roped and shot ("Why didn't you brand him and turn him loose?" he asked), he was glad he had not killed a bear. "One never heard of a bear which traveled all the way from New Mexico to Chicago to kill a man," he wrote.

He was increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of his own paintings. Two foreign trips failed to stimulate him. The first was a result of Poultney Bigelow's wild plan to take a 2,500-mile canoe trip down the length of the Volga. They went first to North Africa, then crossed the Mediterranean and made their way up to St. Petersburg, where they were ordered out of the country by the secret police. They were accused of making drawings and taking photographs of soldiers.

The other foreign trip arose when William Randolph Hearst hired Remington to go to Cuba and report on the impending war. This was the celebrated occasion when Remington cabled back that he could find no war, and Hearst replied, "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war." Remington saw a great deal of action during the Spanish-American War and wrote of it brilliantly, but he found he could no longer face the sustained impact of violence.

Art critics rarely discuss Remington's merits as an artist, but every sale of Western art produces news about the prices paid for his work. Last October a fairly standard Remington, an oil of a cowboy and a bucking bronco, sold at auction for $175,000, a record for Western American art. In 1895 Remington produced his first bronze sculpture, The Bronco Buster, and casts of it sold for $250. Several years later he nearly destroyed one of his bronzes, Coming Through the Rye, when he had difficulty with the casting. Fortunately, he was restrained. Recently a cast of this was sold for $125,000. Among the decorations of the elegant and discerning 21 Club in New York are 26 Remingtons; in 1969, when the restaurant was nearly sold for $10 million, the purchase price included the Remingtons, valued at $1 million.

On the other hand, critical weariness with Remington's paintings, or those of his contemporary, Charles Russell, has grown with each sale. "There are, if not thousands, then hundreds of people who would be willing to pay a dollar to avoid a Remington-Russell exhibition," said a New York Times critic. "This observer finds Remington and Russell virtually nonexistent as artists, but interesting as phenomena in the history of American art."

But how could the two be separated? If ever an artist was shaped by his material, Remington was, and the quality of his work was directly related to his concept of American life and history. He was dominated by a belief, a sense of mission. In the end Remington came to recognize that his concept of the West was an illusion, or partly an illusion, but he needed his illusions to continue. And the time came when his illusions failed to keep him going.

The recommended remedy when illusions end is to get back to the truth, and for Remington the truth was in landscape painting, wonderful little semi-abstractions, as far as possible from the melodramatic shooting-and-riding Western scenes. But the image of Remington as a hard-riding adventurer was too strong in the public mind, and perhaps in his own as well. He said people would not let him do landscapes. "Got me pigeon-holed in their minds, you see," he said, "want horses, cowboys, out-West things—won't believe me if I paint anything else." He wrote a novel, John Ermine of the Yellowstone, partly a conventional popular-magazine romance of a white man who had been raised by an Indian and the daughter of an Army major, partly a vivid account of barracks life and mountain adventure. It was unusual in its offhand manner, a byproduct tossed off by an astonishingly gifted man in a field that was not his own, as though written not because Remington considered himself a novelist but to suggest what he thought more experienced writers should bring to their work.

He began to destroy many of his paintings. Now too heavy to ride, he ate enormously, starting the day with a breakfast of pigs' knuckles and six lamb chops. Warned against drinking, he drank heavily, fortifying himself with nips of whiskey while he painted. In the winter of 1907 he noted in his diary, "Burned every old canvas in house today—out on the snow. About 75—and there is nothing left but my landscape studies." He died on Dec. 26, 1909, after an operation for appendicitis.

One reason for regarding Remington as a social phenomenon is the influence of his work—not on other artists but on the general public and on artisans in other fields. Some of his paintings fixed an image of the West on a generation—such scenes as Fight for the Waterhole, a world of yellow sand and gray mountains, with five trapped plainsmen firing at circling Indians, or A Dash for the Timber, eight frontiersmen riding hell-bent for the protection of the woods ahead of a band of Apaches. "Such violent scenes as these," said Museum Director McCracken, "were the source and inspiration of our Western movies." It is true that you can see the genesis of such film masterpieces as Stagecoach in Remington's marvelous The Old Stage Coach of the Plains—six horses and a Butterfield coach curving down a narrow ridge road in the moonlight, almost an abstraction of black shapes and silver-flecked shadows.

Individual Remington paintings rarely make the impact they made on his contemporaries, but when they are viewed together, as in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth or in The Hogg Brothers Collection in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, they glow on the walls in their flaming red and yellow brilliance like polished ingots, or like golden artifacts preserved in the treasure-house of some vanished civilization.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6