Frederic Sackrider Remington (October 4, 1861 - December 26, 1909) was an American painter, illustrator, sculptor, and writer who specialized in depictions of the Old American West, specifically concentrating on the last quarter of the 19th century American West and images of cowboys, American Indians, and the U.S. Cavalry.
Colonel Remington was away at war during most of the first four years of his son’s life. After the war, he moved his family to Bloomington, Illinois for a brief time and was appointed editor of the Bloomington Republican, but the family returned to Canton in 1867. Remington was the only child of the marriage, and received constant attention and approval. He was an active child, large and strong for his age, who loved to hunt, swim, ride, and go camping. He was a poor student, though, particularly in math, which did not bode well for his father’s ambitions for his son to attend West Point. He began to make drawings and sketches of soldiers and cowboys at an early age.
The family moved to Ogdensburg, New York when Remington was eleven and he attended Vermont Episcopal Institute, a church-run military school, where his father hoped discipline would rein in his son’s lack of focus, and perhaps lead to a military career. Remington took his first drawing lessons at the Institute. He then transferred to another military school where his classmates found the young Remington to be a pleasant fellow, a bit careless and lazy, good-humored, and generous of spirit, but definitely not soldier material. He enjoyed making caricatures and silhouettes of his classmates. At sixteen, he wrote to his uncle of his modest ambitions, “I never intend to do any great amount of labor. I have but one short life and do not aspire to wealth or fame in a degree which could only be obtained by an extraordinary effort on my part”. He imagined a career for himself as a journalist, with art as a sideline.
Remington attended the art school at Yale University, the only male in the freshman year. However, he found that football and boxing were more interesting than the formal art training, particularly drawing from casts and still life objects. He preferred action drawing and his first published illustration was a cartoon of a “bandaged football player” for the student newspaper Yale Courant.. Though he was not a star player, his participation on the strong Yale football team was a great source of pride for Remington and his family. He left Yale in 1879 to tend to his ailing father who had tuberculosis. His father died a year later, at age forty-six, receiving respectful recognition from the citizens of Ogdensburg. Remington’s Uncle Mart secured a good paying clerical job for his nephew in Albany, New York and Remington would return home on weekends to see his girlfriend Eva Caten. After the rejection of his engagement proposal to Eva by her father, Remington became a reporter for his Uncle Mart’s newspaper, then went on to other short-lived jobs.
Living off his inheritance and modest work income, Remington refused to go back to art school and instead spent time camping and enjoying himself. At nineteen, he made his first trip west, going to Montana, at first to buy a cattle operation then a mining interest but realized he did not have sufficient capital for either. In the Ol’ West of 1881, he saw the vast prairies, the quickly shrinking buffalo herds, the still unfenced cattle, and the last major confrontations of U.S. Cavalry and native American tribes, scenes he had imagined since his childhood. Though the trip was undertaken as a lark, it gave Remington a more authentic view of the West than some of the later artists and writers who followed in his footsteps, such as N. C. Wyeth and Zane Grey, who arrived twenty-five years later when the Ol’ West had slipped into history. From that first trip, Harper's Weekly published Remington’s first published commercial effort, a re-drawing of a quick sketch on wrapping paper that he had mailed back East. In 1883, Remington went to Peabody, Kansas to try his hand at the booming sheep ranching and wool trade, as one of the “holiday stockmen”, rich young Easterners out to make a quick killing as ranch owners. He invested his entire inheritance but Remington found ranching to be a rough, boring, isolated occupation which deprived him of the finer things of Eastern life, and the real ranchers thought him a lazy playboy.
Remington continued sketching but at this point his results were still cartoonish and amateurish. After less than a year, he sold his ranch and went home. After acquiring more capital from his mother, he returned to Kansas City to start a hardware business, but due to an alleged swindle it failed, and he reinvested his remaining money as a silent, half owner of a saloon. He went home to marry Eva Caten in 1884 and they returned to Kansas City immediately. She was unhappy with his saloon life and was unimpressed by the sketches of saloon inhabitants that Remington regularly showed her. When his real occupation became known, she left her husband and returned to Ogdensburg. With his wife gone and with business doing badly, Remington started to sketch and paint in earnest, and bartered his sketches for essentials.
He soon had enough success selling his paintings to locals to see art as a real profession. Remington returned home again, his inheritance gone but his faith in his new career secured, reunited with his wife and moved to Brooklyn. He began studies at the Art Students League of New York and significantly bolstered his fresh though still rough technique. His timing was excellent as newspaper interest in the dying West was escalating. He submitted illustrations, sketches, and other works for publication with Western themes to Collier's and Harper's Weekly, as his recent Western experiences (highly exaggerated) and his hearty, breezy “cowboy” demeanor gained him credibility with the eastern publishers looking for authenticity. His first full page cover under his own name appeared in Harper's Weekly on January 9, 1886, when he was twenty-five. With financial backing from his Uncle Bill, Remington was able to pursue his art career and support his wife.
In 1886, Remington was sent to Arizona by Harper's Weekly on a commission as an artist-correspondent to cover the government’s war against Geronimo. Although he never caught up with Geronimo, Remington did acquire many authentic artifacts to be used later as props, and made many photos and sketches valuable for later paintings. He also made notes on the true colors of the West, such as “shadows of horses should be a cool carmine & Blue”, to supplement the black and white photos. Ironically, art critics later criticized his palette as “primitive and unnatural” even though it was based on actual observation.
After returning back East, Remington was sent by Harper's Weekly to cover the Charleston, South Carolina earthquake of 1886. To expand his commission work, he also began doing drawings for Outing magazine. His first year as a commercial artist had been successful, earning Remington $1,200, almost triple that of a typical teacher. He had found his life’s work and bragged to a friend, “That’s a pretty good break for an ex cow-puncher to come to New York with $30 and catch on it ‘art’."
For commercial reproduction in black-and-white, he produced ink and wash drawings. As he added watercolor, he began to sell his work in art exhibitions. His works were selling well but garnered no prizes, as the competition was strong and masters like Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson were considered his superiors. A trip to Canada in 1887, produced illustrations of the Blackfoot, the Crow Nation, and the Canadian Mounties, eagerly enjoyed by the reading public.
Later that year, Remington received a commission to do eighty-three illustrations for a book by Theodore Roosevelt, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, to be serialized in The Century Magazine before publication. The twenty-five year old Roosevelt had a similar Western adventure to Remington, losing money on a ranch in North Dakota the previous year but gaining experience which made him an “expert” on the West. The assignment gave Remington’s career a big boost and forged a lifelong connection with Roosevelt.
His full-color oil painting Return of the Blackfoot War Party was exhibited at the National Academy of Design and the New York Herald commented that Remington would “one day be listed among our great American painters”. Though not admired by all critics, Remington’s work was deemed “distinctive” and “modern”. By now, he was demonstrating the ability to handle complex compositions with ease, as in Mule Train Crossing the Sierras (1888), and to show action from all points of view His status as the new trendsetter in Western art was solidified in 1889 when he won a second-class medal at the Paris Exposition. He had been selected by the American committee to represent American painting, over Albert Bierstadt whose majestic, large-scale landscapes peopled with tiny figures of pioneers and Indians was now considered passé.
Around this time, Remington made a gentleman’s agreement with Harper's Weekly, giving the magazine an informal first option on his output but maintaining Remington’s independence to sell elsewhere if desired. As a bonus, the magazine launched a massive promotional campaign for Remington, stating that “He draws what he knows, and he knows what he draws.” Though laced with blatant puffery (common for the time) claiming that Remington was a bona fide cowboy and Indian scout, the effect of the campaign was to raise Remington to the equal of the era’s top illustrators, Howard Pyle and Charles Dana Gibson.
His first one-man show, in 1890, presented twenty-one paintings at the American Art Galleries and was very well received. With success all but assured, Remington became established in society. His personality, his “pseudo-cowboy” speaking manner, and “Wild West” reputation were strong social attractions. His biography falsely promoted some of the myths he encouraged about his Western experiences.
Remington’s regular attendance at celebrity banquets and stag dinners, however, though helpful to his career, fostered prodigious eating and drinking which caused his girth to expand alarmingly. Obesity became a constant problem for him from then on. Among his urban friends and fellow artists, he was “a man among men, a deuce of a good fellow” but notable because he (facetiously) “never drew but two women in his life, and they were failures” (not counting Indian women). In 1890, Remington moved to posh New Rochelle, New York to his new estate “Endion”, in order to have both more living space and extensive studio facilities, and also with the hope of gaining more exercise.
Remington’s Self-Portrait on a Horse (1890) shows the artist as he wished he was, not the pot-bellied Easterner weighing heavily on a horse, but a tough, lean cowboy heading for adventure with his trusty steed. It was the image his publishers worked hard to maintain as well. In His Last Stand (1890), a cornered bear in the middle of a prairie is brought down by dogs and riflemen, which may have been a symbolized treatment of the dying Indians he had witnessed. Remington’s attitude toward Native Americans was typical for the time. He thought them unfathomable, fearless, superstitious, ignorant, and pitiless—and generally portrayed them as such. White men under attack were brave and noble.
Through the 1890’s, Remington took frequent trips around the U.S., Mexico, and abroad to gather ideas for articles and illustrations, but his military and cowboy subjects always sold the best, even as the Old West was playing out. Gradually, he transitioned from the premiere chronicler-artist of the Old West to its most important historian-artist. He formed an effective partnership with Owen Wister, who became the leading writer of Western stories at the time. Having more confidence of his craft, Remington wrote, “ 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.” Remington’s focus continued on outdoor action and he rarely depicted scenes in gambling and dance halls typically seen in Western movies. He avoids frontier women as well. His painting A Misdeal (1897) is a rare instance of indoor cowboy violence.
Remington’s had developed a sculptor’s 360 degree sense of vision but until a chance remark by playwright Augustus Thomas in 1895, Remington had not yet conceived of himself as a sculptor and thought of it as a separate art for which he had no training or aptitude. With help from friend and sculptor Frederick Ruckstuhl, Remington constructed his first armature and clay model, a “bronco buster” where the horse is reared on its hind legs—technically a very challenging subject. After several months, the novice sculptor overcame the difficulties and had a plaster cast made, then bronze copies, which were sold at Tiffany’s. Remington was ecstatic about his new line of work, and though critical response was mixed, some labelling it negatively as “illustrated sculpture”, it was a successful first effort earning him $6,000 over three years.
During that busy year, Remington became further immersed in military matters, inventing a new type of ammunition carrier; but his patented invention was not accepted for use by the War Department. His favorite subject for magazine illustration was now military scenes, though he admitted, “Cowboys are cash with me”. Sensing the political mood of that time, he was looking forward to a military conflict which would provide the opportunity to be a heroic war correspondent, giving me both new subject matter and the excitement of battle. He was growing bored with routine illustration, and he wrote to Howard Pyle, the dean of American illustrators, that he had “done nothing but potboil of late”. (Earlier, he and Pyle in a gesture of mutual respect had exchanged paintings—Pyle’s painting of a dead pirate for Remington’s of a rough and ready cowpuncher). He was still working very hard, spending seven days a week in his studio.
Remington was further irritated by the lack of his acceptance to regular membership by the Academy, likely due to his image as a popular, cocky, and ostentatious artist. Remington kept up his contact with celebrities and politicos, and continued to woo Theodore Roosevelt, now the New York City Police Commissioner, by sending him complimentary editions of new works. Despite Roosevelt’s great admiration for Remington, he never purchased a Remington painting or drawing.
Remington’s association with Roosevelt paid off, however, when the artist became a war correspondent and illustrator during the Spanish-American War in 1898, sent to provide illustrations for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. He witnessed the assault on San Juan Hill by American forces, including those led by Roosevelt. However, his heroic conception of war, based in part on his father’s Civil War experiences, were shattered by the actual horror of jungle fighting and the deprivations he faced in camp. His reports and illustrations upon his return focused not on heroic generals but on the troops, as in his Scream of the Shrapnel (1899), which depicts a deadly ambush on American troops by an unseen enemy. When the Rough Riders returned to the U.S., they presented their courageous leader Roosevelt with Remington’s bronze statuette, The Bronco Buster, which the artist proclaimed, “the greatest compliment I ever had…After this everything will be mere fuss.” Roosevelt responded, “There could have been no more appropriate gift from such a regiment.”
In 1888, he achieved the public honor of having two paintings used for reproduction on U. S. Postal stamps. In 1900, as an economy move, Harper’s dropped Remington as their star artist. To compensate for the loss of work, Remington wrote and illustrated a full-length novel, The Way of an Indian, which was intended for serialization by a Hearst publication but not published until five years later in Cosmopolitan. Remington’s protagonist, a Cheyenne named Fire Eater, is a prototype Native American as viewed by Remington and many of his time.
Remington then returned to sculpture, and produced his first works produced by the lost wax method, a higher quality process than the earlier sand casting method he had employed. By 1901, Collier's was buying Remington’s illustrations on a steady basis. As his style matured, Remington portrayed his subjects in every light of day. His nocturnal paintings, very popular in his late life, such as A Taint on the Wind and Scare in the Pack Train, are more impressionistic and loosely painted, and focus on the unseen threat.
Remington completed another novel in 1902, John Ermine of the Yellowstone, a modest success but a definite disappointment as it was completely overshadowed by the best seller The Virginian, written by his sometime collaborator Owen Wister, which became a classic Western novel. A stage play based on “John Ermine” failed in 1904. After “John Ermine”, Remington decided he would soon quit writing and illustration (after drawing over 2700 illustrations) to focus on sculpture and painting.
In 1905, Remington had a major publicity coup when Collier's devoted an entire issue to the artist and his art, showcasing his latest works. His large outdoor sculpture of a “Big Cowboy”, which stands on the East River Drive in Philadelphia, was another late success. His “Explorers” series, depicting older historical events in western U.S. history, did not fair well with the public or the critics. The financial panic of 1907 caused a slow down in his sales and in 1908, fantasy artists, such as Maxfield Parrish, became popular with the public and with commercial sponsors. Remington tried to sell his home in New Rochelle to get further away from urbanization. One night he made a bonfire in his yard and burned dozens of his oil paintings which had been used for magazine illustration (worth millions of dollars today), making an emphatic statement that he was done with illustration forever. He wrote, “there is nothing left but my landscape studies”. Near the end of his life, he moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut. In his final two years, under the influence of The Ten, he was veering more heavily to Impressionism, and he regretted that he was studio bound (by virtue of his declining health) and could not follow his peers who painted “plein air”.
Frederic Remington died after an emergency appendectomy led to peritonitis on December 26, 1909. His extreme obesity (weight nearly 300 lbs.) had complicated the anesthesia and the surgery, and chronic appendicitis was cited in the post-mortem examination as an underlying factor in his death.
Remington was the most successful Western illustrator in the “Golden Age” of illustration at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, so much so that the other Western artists such as Charles Russell and Charles Schreyvogel were known during Remington’s life as members of the “School of Remington”. His style was naturalistic, sometimes impressionistic, and usually veered away from the ethnographic realism of earlier Western artists such as George Catlin. His focus was firmly on the people and animals of the West, with landscape usually of secondary importance, unlike the members and descendants of the Hudson River School, such as Frederick Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran, who glorified the vastness of the West and the dominance of nature over man. He took artistic liberties in his depictions of human action, and for the sake of his readers’ and publishers’ interest. Though always confident in his subject matter, Remington was less sure about his colors, and critics often harped on his palette, but his lack of confidence drove him to experiment and produce a great variety of effects, some very true to nature and some imagined.
His collaboration with Owen Wister on The Evolution of the Cowpuncher, published by Harper’s Monthly in September 1893, was the first statement of the mythical cowboy in American literature, spawning the entire genre of Western fiction, films, and theater that followed. Remington provided the concept of the project, its factual content, and its illustrations and Wister supplied the stories, sometimes altering Remington’s ideas. (Remington’s prototype cowboys were Mexican rancheros but Wister made the American cowboys descendants of Saxons—in truth, they were both partially right, as the first American cowboys were both the ranchers who tended the cattle and horses of the American Revolutionary army on Long Island and the Mexicans who ranched in the Arizona and California territories).
Remington was one of the first American artists to illustrate the true gait of the horse in motion (along with Thomas Eakins), as validated by the famous sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge. Previously, horses in full gallop were usually depicted with all four legs pointing out, like “hobby horses”. The galloping horse became Remington’s signature subject, copied and interpreted by many Western artists who followed him, adopting the correct anatomical motion. Though criticized by some for his use of photography, Remington often created depictions that slightly exaggerated natural motion to satisfy the eye. He wrote, “the artist must know more than the camera... (the horse must be) incorrectly drawn from the photographic standpoint (to achieve the desired effect).”
Also, noteworthy was Remington’s invention of “cowboy” sculpture. From his inaugural piece, The Bronco Buster (1895), he created an art form which is still very popular among collectors of Western art.
An early advocate of the photoengraving process over wood engraving for magazine reproduction of illustrative art, Remington became an accepted expert in reproduction methods, which helped gain him strong working relationships with editors and printers. Furthermore, Remington’s skill as a businessman was equal to his artistry, unlike many other artists who relied on their spouses or business agents or no one at all to run their financial affairs. He was an effective publicist and promoter of his art. He insisted that his originals be handled carefully and returned to him in pristine condition (without editor’s marks) so he could sell them. He carefully regulated his output to maximize his income and kept detailed notes about his works and his sales.