Bigoted brilliance

Frederic Remington
December 5, 1997

In John Ford's wonderful and deeply ironic western movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the relative claims, counter-claims and sheer embroidery that surround the actions of James Stewart and John Wayne are characterised by the local newspaper editor: "This is the West", he says; "When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend." The American western artist Frederic Remington lies at the very heart of that legend. He and his contemporary and rival, Charles Russell, have, for a century, represented the visual record of that heroic time and place and have personified American art for those of unsophisticated taste.

Remington was not a great American painter like, say, Thomas Eakins or John Singleton Copley. He was not even as good as Winslow Homer and was completely outclassed by the one truly great 19th-century painter of the American west, Albert Bierstadt. Nonetheless, for those who wanted the heroic west in static, rather than moving Hollywood, images Remington is, together with Russell, the man who moulded American popular taste. He was a prodigiously successful magazine illustrator and an accomplished draughtsman, compulsively recording the minutiae of life in the west from log cabins to bear-claw necklaces. Arrow-heads, head-dresses, harness, mine workings, cattle brands, Indian war-paint, cavalry uniforms, animals as prey, predators or beasts of burden all served his art and gave us images that we still examine today for both instruction and illustration.

Above all, Remington drew and painted the men of the west and their mounts, soldiers and officers of the US cavalry and their horses, Indian braves and their ponies. He loved the movement of horses and recorded them in action as we like to think of them, but not, I suspect, as they really are. For that we still need the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge and the paintings of Jack B. Yeats, Eugene Delacroix and the incomparable George Stubbs. Having made these reservations, one accepts his horses as animals indubitably exciting, challenging enough to satisfy the most exacting equine obsessive.

Although Remington and Russell are always bracketed together and were, indeed, rivals for the affections of western aficionados, there really was no contest between them because Remington's best work always had the glint of battle in it, while Russell was more at home with ranges, cattle country and cowboys in a time and a place that he mourned as fiercely as Remington regretted the passing of the Indian wars. Russell once wrote of the capitulation of the ranges to the farmers, the "sod-busters" who hired Shane: "When the nester turned this country grass side down the west we loved died I She was a beautiful girl that had many lovers but to day thair are only a fiew left to morn her the farmer plowed her under I the man betwene the plow handls was never a romance maker and when he comes history is dead."

However much those two artists chafed over the loss of their visions, those very visions took up a commanding position in popular culture and dominated our visual perception of the old west. The landscape is unalterable and unaltered. What fits into the landscape is a much more subjective matter.

Here, largely because Remington's aggressive action is much more filmic than Russell's more bucolic version, Remington's vision has become the received wisdom of Hollywood. When we see a bully make a tenderfoot dance by firing his revolver at the victim's feet, it looks exactly like the little pencil sketch from the Century Magazine in 1888 called "Dance higher -Jdance faster". If you watch John Ford's cavalry films, they are often Remington paintings brought to life, and, in such pursuit of historical accuracy as Hollywood encouraged, it was his uniforms, his weapons, where possible his colours and where appropriate his "camera angles" in action shots. Howard Hawks was another devoted Hollywood fan who even tried to recapture Remington's light in a night scene set outside a saloon.

As we know, the Hollywood picture of cowboys and Indians has, in so far as it is still deployed at all, changed radically and towards an increased liberalism. No director today could propagate the view that "the only good Injun is a dead Injun". In 1881 one of Remington's contemporaries, the Wyoming journalist Bill Nye, could write: "A dead Indian is a pleasing picture I The picture of a wild free Indian chasing the buffalo may suit some, but I like still life in art. I like the picture of a broad-shouldered, well-formed brave as he lies with his nerveless hand across a large hole in the pit of his stomach."

Remington, one regrets to report, was of a similar persuasion. He clearly liked the killing of Indians, and he liked war in general, doubtless because it brought death on a grand scale. He spent a lot of time sketching the Spanish-American war in Cuba and was, in effect, a non-verbal war correspondent.

He is in many ways a paradoxical figure. Many artistic reputations wax and wane. This is usually because, as with the Impressionists or the Cubists, no one could understand them when they first appeared; or, as with the Victorians, such as Landseer, Leighton or Alma-Tadema, they zoom in and out of critical and commercial fashion.

Remington's aesthetic appeal, having always been wholly populist, has barely changed. Americans who do not know much about art but know what they like have always adored him and will continue to. It is the art-historical perspective that has veered so much. The doyen of English art critics, John Russell, has written that much of Remington's art is invalid because of his association with: "a macho, pre-Freudian and blatantly racist conception of American manhood."

As so often, it is difficult to disagree with Russell, particularly when one reads a Remington letter quoted in this book: "You can't glorify a JewI Nasty humansI I've got some Winchesters and when the massacring begins, I can get my share of 'em and what's more I will. Jews, Injuns, Chinamen, Italians, Huns - the rubbish of the Earth, I hate." The style is the man; it is hard to stomach this at all, let alone as the soul of a revered artist.

Of course, one does not need Russell to tell one that Remington is macho. Paintings of women are rarities in his work. Even if he did not admire the Indian women, and the cavalry obviously was all male, there must clearly have been some form of female life in the old west; and if he was not interested in women homesteaders, he might at least have spared a glance for the women in the saloons. I was, therefore, much struck by a particularly beautiful oil painting of 1900. It shows an Indian girl in a buckskin dress and with a large green earring. In its modern simplicity of line and flat composition, it looks forward to painters such as Milton Avery. It is so striking not merely because of its aesthetic qualities, admittedly considerable, but simply because it is a full-scale representation of a woman.

At the same time, some of Remington's recent critics have gone too far in their attempts to vilify him because he was, alas, a not untypical 19th-century figure. One critic even mistook a wrangler tightening a cinch on an unbroken horse in His First Lesson as a brutal male stabbing this noble animal! Politically correct revisionism is worse than normal revisionism.

As this book makes clear, Remington was a prolific, massively industrious virtuoso, and one would have to be pretty bloodless not to be fascinated and, at times, stirred by his portrait of a vanished, sometimes villainous, sometimes heroic world. Paintings such as The Trooper (1891) or The Apaches! (1904) or Cold Morning on the Range (of the same year and the frontispiece), The Trooper and his Mare (1895), burst with action and reveal character in a True Grit manner that is not without its charm.

We cannot entirely blame Remington, vile bigot as he clearly was, for making his leading characters look like John Wayne at his swaggering worst. Wayne, after all, was merely a film star, exquisitely crafted by John Ford and others to look like an authentic Remington hero, and hindsight is really not a valid critical tool. As an artist, Remington is revealed as part hyper-realist, part-fantasist and whole nostalgic romantic; but he is far from negligible, and his work will live for as long as we continue to idealise, or at least study, the old west.

This massive two-volume work is an essential tool for any serious student of the American west and Remington's role in its development. Although the introductory texts are brief and I would have preferred more substantial captions for the main paintings, Peter Hassrick and Melissa Webster give us more than 3,000 works, adequately illustrated, with more than 100 in colour. Sadly, the book limits itself to two-dimensional works and does not catalogue the sculpture that is an essential part of Remington's oeuvre. Doubtless that will be catalogued one day, if only to please President Clinton who, I am told, has a major Remington bronze, borrowed from the Brooklyn Museum, in his office. Following the new tradition of our times, the book also contains, like the admirable recent W. W. Norton catalogue of Edward Hopper, an electronic version on CD-Rom.

Sadly, the proof-reading is inadequate for a scholarly work: "simultaniously", "historigraphical" in a chapter title and, really heinously, "raissone" in the jacket blurb. But these are minor blemishes in a real treasure house of American western lore and legend.

Tom Rosenthal is a critic and publisher, and author of The Art of Jack B. Yeats.

Frederic Remington: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Watercolours and Drawings

Author - Peter J. Hassrick and Melissa J. Webster
ISBN - 0 93168 57 6
Publisher - Buffalo Bill Historical Center / University of Washington
Price - £150.00
Pages - 934

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