THE HORSE IN TIME
The largest Frederic Remington exhibition ever opened in the South is now on view at the Booth Museum in Georgia.
Famously, Frederic Remington’s epitaph reads, “He Knew the Horse.” That epitaph provides us with a powerful clue to Remington the man and Remington the artist. Think about it. For Remington the man, life—real life—was lived in the saddle, on horseback; for Remington the artist, art—all his art, at any rate—begins with the horse. You see this everywhere in his art, from wash drawings to oil paintings to bronzes, this feeling that the horse, in Remington’s mind, is what connects native to pioneer, cowboy to vaquero, Buffalo Soldier to Dog Soldier. Treasures from the Frederic Remington Art Museum & Beyond, the new exhibition at the Booth Western Art Museum, reveals the horse as the catalyst that gives rise to Frederic Remington’s American West.
In elevating the horse, Remington casts his lot with some of the great equine art in history, with Uccello, Géricault, Delacroix and others, and invests the American West with the delicate balance between the wild and the tame that not only characterizes humanity’s relationship with the horse, but also typifies what was seen at the time as a battle in the West between savagery and civilization, a battle Remington grew increasingly ambivalent about as he lamented the passing of the Old West and wondered whether civilization wasn’t savagery of a different—perhaps even more savage—order. With this idea in mind, consider Booth Museum director Seth Hopkins’ statement that the intention of the exhibition is “to present Remington, the most important Western artist, as a multi-media artist who achieved mastery in every medium he worked in,” moving beyond the familiar illustrations and bronzes to embrace the totality of his output, including his masterful easel paintings, wash drawings and lithographs.
Remington, Hopkins asserts, “has been gaining traction within the larger scope of American art for the past two to five years.” The Color of Night exhibition in 2003, which showcased the artist’s late paintings, nocturnes in a style entirely different from anything he had ever done, and demonstrated the artist’s movement “toward impressionism,” as Hopkins says, “toward his desire to be known as a fine artist.”
With his death at the age of 48 in 1909, Remington’s mature works came to a swift end. “What would he have become had he lived?” asks Hopkins. “That’s the milliondollar question.”
But to get to that question, you have to get there, so to speak.
By 1893, Remington was already famous. He had illustrated future President Theodore Roosevelt’s Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, was Harper’s go-to guy for Western scenes, and had taken an early cue from and made anatomical corrections to his horses because of Eadweard Muybridge’s groundbreaking photographic and zoopraxiscope study, The Horse in Motion. But the West was rapidly changing: the fence, the railroad, the vanishing of the buffalo and the end of the Indian Wars were combining to subdivide, mechanize, urbanize and tame the vastness that Remington’s horses of the mind
traversed. So the artist went south, to Mexico, to the giant Bavicora Ranch, where he witnessed and lived in and among the vaqueros in a thriving cowboy culture that led to some of his greatest wash drawings and lithographs, including Mounting a Wild One. These, in turn, led to his first essay in bronze in 1895, The Broncho Buster (Broncho would lose that h over the years). Remington always claimed that he got his start in paint, but that he would live on in bronze.
From the collector and enthusiast’s point of view, the Booth exhibition will have a rarity on hand: three Bronco Busters (the h having vanished), one an early sand cast from the Henry-bonnard Foundry, a second lost-wax cast from the Roman Bronze Works, and one of the spurious (read “fake”) casts that unfortunately abound on the market. Comparing original bronzes cast in very different ways in Remington’s two New York and then comparing their points with points against a fake which may be both skillful and crude should be instructive.
When William Randolph Hearst sent Remington to Cuba to report on and illustrate the Spanish-american War, guerrilla warfare and the complex politics of the island destroyed his noble notions of war and of the destiny of
Anglo-saxon America. The nobility of the cause was muddy, and there were no gallant cavalry engagements. The experience of battle sickened Remington and changed him forever. Remington, having been fired by Hearst for not providing enough bloody heroics, turned to painting history, to painting the lives and sufferings of ordinary soldiers, and to documenting the passing of traditional Indian life. His work becomes somewhat sentimental and nostalgic for a brawnier West. At the same time, he’s seeing his contemporaries, Whistler in particular, pushing painting out into impressionistic directions. He rails against this, but you see it creeping into his compositions, as his strokes widen, his shapes soften, and light and negative space become more important to him.
Night, the Western night, becomes Remington’s subject. Night makes ghosts of the cowboy and the Indian, swaddling them in
lost, past time.
A year before his death, in 1908, in his backyard in New Rochelle, New York, Remington throws a pile of paintings onto a fire. Not enough, in my mind, has been made of this moment, this bonfire of the vanities, and its meaning as an utter rejection of his own past and former self.
A year later, Frederic Remington would be dead.
What would Remington have become? What would he have made of the infamous Armory Show of 1913? What would he have made of Braque and Picasso? Of Kandinsky and Duchamp and so many others whose works jolted American taste? How would Remington’s Western world, his world of the horse, have fared as modernism began to assert itself against an impressionism that the artist was only just beginning to come to terms with?
Jennifer Henneman, curator at the Denver Art Museum, has argued lately, not without persuasion, that we should see Remington as a modernist. Alexander Nemerov, in his book, Frederic Remington and Turn-of-thecentury America, has argued, not without persuasion, that Remington’s modernism, his darkness, is a reaction against modernity, against a night made day by electricity.
My take? Had he lived to see the end of the horse culture in the West, the mowing down of horses in the trenches of World War I and their replacement by tanks, and the swift replacement of horses in cities by automobiles, maybe. He might have gone full modernist, closing in on moonlight off a Colt, the sheen on a palomino’s coat, or the broken barbules on a war chief’s headdress; they would all have been heartbreak on canvas.
In a former life, I ran the books and art department at Holland & Holland,
an old British sporting arms company’s outpost in New York. Through a colleague, I came into contact with Brigadier General Francis Ingall. I sold many copies of his memoir, The Last of the Bengal Lancers, in my department and because of this, one Saturday he called me from his home in Napa Valley, where he had retired. Over the course of this, and many subsequent Saturdays, I listened to all the details of the Brigadier’s life that hadn’t made it into the book. General Ingall had attended Sandhurst with David Niven, the actor. Posted to the Northwest Frontier in India, Ingall led the last mounted lancer charge against bandits in the Khyber Pass. As World War II loomed, one day Ingall’s entire regiment was sent out on foot. When they returned, their horse, including his beloved destrier, Eagerhart, were gone, replaced by tanks. One night, he bicycled to hear Gandhi and Nehru speak on independence. He was, as he said, “the only white man, and certainly the only white man in uniform, in the place.” Gandhi and Nehru saw him, marveled at his pluck, and invited him onto the stage to take questions. Ingall distinguished himself during the war, leading a mixed force of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims in Italy and was there at the dinner when Lord Mountbatten announced the partition of India into India and Pakistan. Ingall rose and objected, denouncing the idea and saying that Mountbatten would be responsible for civil war and millions of deaths. He was severely censured—though history soon proved him right. The outline of Ingall’s life is readily available online, but don’t bother thinking about writing the screenplay. I’m on it, and I have the notes from our conversations that tell the inside story.
The point of this last paragraph is that when you open Ingall’s memoir, it isn’t dedicated to his wife, or to his only son, who died young. No, his book— and life—are dedicated as follows: “To my charger Eagerhart and all the brave cavalry horses.” Remington’s epitaph; Ingall’s dedication. Modernity? General Ingall adapted. Even thrived. No doubt Remington would have as well. But the General didn’t much care for a world where knowing and loving the horse counted for so little. Remington wouldn’t have cared for it at all.
Frederic Remington (1861-1909), Life in the Cattle Country-driving the “Round Up,” ca. 1901, oil on canvas, 27 x 40”. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming, USA. Museum Purchase. 62.72.
Frederic Remington (1861-1909), Untitled (Red Cloud Buttes north of Fort Robinson, Nebraska). Oil on canvas, 20⅛ x 38⅛”. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming, USA. Gift of the Coe Foundation. 12.67.
Frederic Remington (1861-1909), The Cheyenne, 1901, Roman Bronze Works cast no. 79, 20 x 25 x 8”. Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, NY, Public Library Collection.
Frederic Remington (1861-1909), Cavalryman of the Line, Mexico, 1889, oil on canvas, 24⅛ x 20”. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection, 1961.238.
Frederic Remington (1861-1909), Buffalo Hunter Spitting a Bullet into a Gun, 1892, watercolor on paper, 28½ x 25”. Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, NY, Public Library Collection.
Frederic Remington (1861-1909), Prospectors Making Frying-pan Bread, ca. 1893, oil on canvas, 33½ x 46½”, Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, NY.
Frederic Remington (1861-1909), ca. 1889, wash with gouache on gray paper, 28 x 27”. Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, NY. Frederic Remington (1861-1909), The Broncho Buster, 1895, The Henry-bonnard Bronze Company castNo. 23, 24 x 20 x 11". Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, NY.