Frederic Sackrider Remington and The American West

Text by Lynn C. McDaniel, Communications Specialist, University Art Galleries Department

The Forsyth Galleries has, in its collection, some important paintings by artists who focused their talents on the American West, including Joseph Henry Sharp, Charles Marion Russell, and (among others) Albert Bierstadt. One of the many favorites currently on exhibition is a painting called Modern Comanche, by Frederic Remington.
Painting by Frederic Remington of Modern Comanche
Frederic Sackrider Remington was born in 1861 in Canton, New York, and grew up in the Eastern United States. He took his first trip west when he was 20 years old. Although Remington moved west for a short period of time, and visited quite often to acquire inspiration for his paintings, he and his wife found the life difficult and ended up moving back to New York.

As one who loved adventure and a good story, Remington used his skills as an illustrator, painter, novelist, journalist, and sculptor to create his own version of the wild west. More than the west inspiring Remington’s paintings, Remington, with his bold sense of color, light and his focus on the cowboy and Native American conflict, created America’s popular vision of who and what America represented—bravery, adventure, man against man, and man against nature.

Much of the cinematography of Director John Ford’s western films was based on the works of Remington, Russell and Von Schmidt, but Remington seemed to be his greatest influence. Ford’s cavalry movies, including “Fort Apache,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” and “Rio Grande,” among many others, have become film tributes to the works of artists of the American west.

Ford stated, “When I did ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’, I tried to have the cameras photograph it as Remington would have sketched and painted it. It came out beautifully and was very successful in this respect, I think. When I did ‘The Searchers,’ I used a Charles Russell motif. These were two of our greatest western artists, of course.” (Howze)

Ford also borrowed techniques from Remington–such as diagonal composition and specific gestures illustrated by the artist–to flesh out his films. But art imitating life eventually became life rewritten by art. In a scene from “Fort Apache,” John Wayne’s character, Captain Yorke, discusses a painting named Thursday’s Charge with newspaper men. The painting depicts a brave charge, led by Colonel Thursday, against savage Apaches in warpaint. Although Captain Yorke knows the charge was ill-conceived and reckless, he maintains the bravado of the Colonel and states that the painting is “Correct in every detail.” Similarly, in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” one of the actors notes, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Although he was a prolific and brilliant artist, Remington’s attitudes and personal beliefs aligned with the times, and he made several racist and bigoted remarks in letters to friends. He is reviled by some both for his comments, and for his paintings of battle scenes with white soldiers and cowboys dominating their bloody victims, such as in The Battle of Warbonnet Creek. But Remington was an American of the late 1800s and early 1900s. His views were reflective of his time and sympathetic to the American Cowboy, not to Native Americans or so-called “foreigners.” (Pinder)

In 1897, Remington was sent to Cuba in the wake of the Spanish American War to work as an illustrator/journalist for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. During this time, rumors of “one of the most famous stories in American journalism” was widely reported. Remington supposedly telegraphed to Hearst, “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst was reported to have replied, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” In “Not likely sent: The Remington-Hearst ‘Telegrams,’ “ W. Joseph Campbell states that it is “exceedingly unlikely that such messages were ever sent,” and was more likely a case of trying to prove that, by using yellow journalism, Hearst and his newspaper had forced the United States into war. (Campbell)

Revered and respected as an artist, Remington died when he was only 48 years old, succumbing to peritonitis after an emergency appendectomy. His legacy included more than 2,750 paintings and illustrations, eight books (including novels and collections of magazine articles) and 25 original sculptures (from which many castings were made).

In addition to Modern Comanche, the Forsyth Galleries are proud to offer our patrons the opportunity to view two other outstanding Remington paintings: Cowboys on a Cattle Thief’s Trail and Crossing Water to Escape a Prairie Fire, as well as paintings by Russell, Farny, Sharp, Fechin and many other celebrated Western artists.

Works Cited:

Ballinger, James K. Frederick Remington Art Museum. Website: http://fredericremington.org. Published 1989. Date accessed: November 12, 2012.

Buscombe, Edward. Painting the Legend: Frederic Remington and the Western. Cinema Journal , Vol. 23, No. 4 (Summer, 1984), pp. 12-27 . Published by: University of Texas Press on behalf of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies . Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1225261. Date accessed: November 13, 2012.

Campbell, W. Joseph. “Not likely sent: The Remington-Hearst ‘Telegrams”. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly.Website: http://www.academic2.american.edu/~wjc/notlikely.htm. Published Summer 2000. Date accessed: November 13, 2012.

Howze, W. The Influence of Western Painting and Genre Painting on the Films of John Ford, Connexions Website: http://cnx.org/content/col11357/1.1/. Sep 2, 2011. Date accessed: November 12, 2012.

Pinder, Kymberly N. Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History. Published in 2002 by Routledge. Website: http://books.google.com/books?id=vk0k8qFPjykC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false. Date accessed: November 12, 2012.

Van Houten, Amy. The Spanish American War Centennial. Website: http://www.spanamwar.com/remington.htm. Date published: Unknown. Date accessed: November 12, 2012.

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