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Mythbuster – The Art, Legacy and Mythology of Frederic Remington

“History owes something, and art something less, to Frederic Remington.” – Author A. B. Guthrie Jr.

If the current American image of the West can be attributed to a single person, it is undoubtedly Frederic Remington. Seemingly inexhaustible, Remington fashioned nearly “3,000 drawings and paintings, 25 sculptures, and eight volumes of writings throughout his career.” [1] Although George Caitlin is “generally recognized as the first artist to devote himself seriously and single-mindedly to a visual life in the Western Territories” [2], it is Remington who has emerged as the more noteworthy artistic historian. While stylized in realism, Remington’s West is not entirely realistic, often fabricated on masculine biases which have been perpetually replicated. By deconstructing Remington’s depiction of the West, predominantly through his construction of the cowboy and the role the cowboy played in film, we can recognize the inherent preconceptions which cloud and have shaped our own view of the West and understand the myth in which they exist.

Remington Fall

Frederic Remington’s art is a reflection of “an era that glorified the strenuous life and the cultivation of personal character, an attitude appealing to turn-of-the-century Americans”, [4] and no persona reflected this sentiment more appropriately than the cowboy. The cowboy had existed long before Frederic Remington, ranging “across the Texas plains as early as the 1820’s (and Hispanic caballeros much earlier).” By the 1860’s, “the image of the cowboy as a diligent worker came to predominate”, and by the 1880’s “an anti-image of the cowboy developed and the public perception of the cowboy turned from that of a loyal worker to one of murderous thug.” [3] Remington, recognizing the magnitude of the cowboy’s place in frontier history, tailored his own version of the cowboy with four essential modifications: re-establishing the cowboy as an icon of masculinity, strengthening the cowboys association with the horse, suiting the cowboy with the coarseness and strength of the frontier personality and placing the cowboy within the context of social Darwinism. [3] The paintings The Fall of the Cowboy (1895) (pictured here) and Cracker Cowboys of Florida (1895), as well as the bronze sculpture Bronco Buster (1895), are quite revealing in this context, all representing the absolute masculinity and strength of Remington’s cowboy and as expected, each cowboy is accompanied by his finest companion, a horse.

Remington’s historical timing as an artist, having been the successor to the recent invention of the photograph, was rather significant in itself as it birthed an ideological shift in painting styles ultimately leading to a noteworthy impact in the film industry and the Western genre. [1] Early photography was bulky, expensive and limited in its capabilities. Because of cameras long exposure time, photos were best suited for landscape shots, creating what Remington perceived as an opportunity to create realistic action paintings (e.g. The Prairie Hunter, 1852; A Fantasy from the Pony War Dance, 1891). By the 1900’s, “just at the moment when cinema was ready to gather up into itself so many of the era’s popular forms of entertainment…painting had created a taste for dramatic narrative and highly-charged scenes of physical action.” [1] Acclaimed director John Ford based the film “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949) on the “style and movement” of Remington paintings. Remington’s cowboys infiltrated the silver screen and true to Remington’s masculine form, “of all film genres, the Western is the one where women have the most marginal positions.” [1]

Because of its realism, Remington’s art was used as a form of “photo” journalism. Contrarily, he was quite deliberate in his subjectivity looked to style a reality of independent, rugged masculinity. From “No Country for Old Men” (2007) to the Marlboro Man, Remington’s influence is still palpable. Undeniably our modern perception of the west is steeped in his folklore.

Author: Paul Deane


[1] Buscombe, Edward. “Painting the Legend: Frederic Remington and the Western.” Cinema Journal 23.4 (Summer 1984): 12-27.

[2] “Frederic Remington.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Vol. 18. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 344-46.

[3] Logan, L. “The Geographical Imagination of Frederic Remington: the Invention of the Cowboy West.” Journal of Historical Geography 18.1 (1992): 75-90.

[4] Rose, Cynthia, ed. “Art of Frederic Remington.” American Decades Primary Sources 1: 1900-1909 (2004): 12-17.

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