J. Frank Dobie (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: "A Summary Introduction to Frederick Remington," in Prefaces, Little, Brown and Company, 1961, pp. 175-86.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1961, Dobie describes Remington's life and praises his writing and the power of his visual art.]
Frederic Remington worked for only about twenty-five years. During the half-century that has raced by since he died just past his forty-eighth birthday—still in the Horse Age—his fame as depictor of the Old West has not perceptibly diminished. Yet no adequate life of him has been published. The one considerable piece of writing on his life and work worthy of respect by people entitled to an opinion is the chapter "Remington in Kansas" (pages 194-211, plus a wealth of notes, pages 355-363) in Artists and Illustrators of the Old West, 1850-1900, by the late Robert Taft, of the University of Kansas, published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1953. The present essay owes far more to this noble work of vast knowledge, all ordered and evaluated, and of quiet power than to all other sources.
Frederic Remington, Artist of the Old West, by Harold McCracken, 1947, contains a useful bibliography of Remington's writings, books illustrated by him, appearances in periodicals, and his bronzes.
Remington's own writings—all illustrated—are the best sources for facts and understanding about him, but many of them in magazines antedating his death—including the autobiographical sketch in Collier's Weekly (New York, March 18, 1905)—are available in only a few libraries.
The most knowledgeable person alive on Remington is probably Miss Helen L. Card, proprietor of the Latendorf Bookshop (containing more art than books), 714 Madison Avenue, New York. She does not publish enough, but her two pamphlets, privately printed at Woonsocket, Rhode Island, 1946, on A Collector's Remington (I. "Notes on Him; Books Illustrated by Him; and Books Which Gossip About Him." II. "The Story of His Bronzes, with a Complete Descriptive List") contain as much concentrated protein as wheat germ.
Frederic Sackrider Remington was born of parents strong of body and character in Canton, New York, October 1, 1861. His father owned and edited the local newspaper but left it to fight for the Union. Frederic, an only child, early learned to swim, fish, and play Indian in the woods. He hung around the Canton fire station in order to associate with the horses. He drew them and other forms of life on margins of schoolbooks and in albums. From high school he was sent to a military academy, against which he rebelled, at the same time filling a sketchbook with pictures of cavalrymen battling horseback Indians. At home on vacation, he improvised a studio in an uncle's barn. His models were horses—not only carriage horses but several Western ponies belonging to town people.
In the fall of 1878 he went to Yale University, playing football and studying in the Yale Art School. The one other member of his art class was Poultney Bigelow, who became editor of Outing magazine and, in 1886, discovered in some pictures offered him "the real thing, the unspoiled, native genius dealing with Mexican ponies, cowboys, cactus, lariats, and sombreros." The artist turned out to be Remington of Yale.
In 1880, Remington's father died and Frederic inherited a few thousand dollars. He refused to return to Yale but seems not to have known what he wanted until he made a trip to Montana in August of 1881. In 1882, Harper's Weekly (February 25). published a picture entitled "Cowboys of Arizona: Roused by a Scout." According to the credit line it was "drawn by W. A. Rogers from a sketch by Frederic Remington."
Young Frederic had been corresponding with a Yale friend named Robert Camp (B.A., 1882) of Milwaukee who had gone to Butler County, Kansas, where he was trying his hand at sheep raising. By the end of 1882 he owned a section of land and 900 sheep. In March, 1883, Remington joined him and bought a quarter section (160 acres) not far from Camp's for $3,400. It had a three-room frame house, a well, a corral, and two barns on it. Shortly thereafter he bought an adjoining quarter section for $1,250. He bought horses before he bought sheep. The one he rode was a dun mare from Texas that would not have been ridden by any self-respecting range man in Texas—solely because she was a mare: such was the etiquette of the times. But she suited Remington and he named her Terra Cotta. He hired a hand named Bill, who by his talk was an authority on horses. They built a sheep shed. Remington then bought several hundred sheep, which Bill left him to herd until he hired a neighboring boy and thus bought his own freedom. He was still chief cook and bottle washer on his own ranch.
At that time sheep were as respectable as mules or cattle. As Robert Taft shows, up to 1885 no conflict in Kansas existed between sheepmen and cowmen. Remington did not become an artist of sheep, though he made a drawing of his own flock. Inside one of his barns he carved on the wooden wall the picture of a cowboy roping a steer. He was depicting the conventional rather than what he saw. His post office was Peabody, Kansas. Under date of May 11, 1883, he wrote a "legal friend" in Canton, New York: "Papers came all right—are the cheese—man just shot down the street—must go." Robert Taft made full examination of files of Peabody newspapers, interviewed many people, including Robert Camp, Remington's ranching compadre, but found no evidence whatsoever of "man just shot down the street." To tell the truth, Remington carried on the shooting most of his life.
Of his practice in drawing during his Kansas sojourn, Robert Taft wrote:
He spent considerable time with his sketch book. He sketched his ranch, his sheep, his neighbors and their activities. He went to Plum Grove and sketched the preacher who visited the schoolhouse on Sundays and the sketch was then passed around the audience. A neighbor bought a trotting horse and Remington drew the horse. Bob Camp's cook was greatly pleased when Remington drew for him on rough wrapping paper a sketch of a cow defending her calf from the attack of a wolf. Many evenings a crowd would gather at the Remington ranch and Remington would sketch the individuals as they "chinned" with one another or as they boxed, for boxing was a favorite sport of the young ranchers. Few cared to put on the gloves with Remington.
In the spring of 1884 he rode horseback to Dodge City, then the "cowboy capital of the world," and other points in the cow country. Back with his sheep, he learned that Terra Cotta could not outdodge a jackrabbit. Then he learned that a mare "looking old and decrepit," owned by a stranger looking still older and more decrepit, could outrun two horses that his friends and his hired man Bill had spent days and nights extolling. He lost Terra Cotta on a bet. He wrote and illustrated the jackrabbit and horse races for Outing magazine (New York, May, 1887), under title of "Coursing Rabbits on the Plains."
On Christmas Eve at a schoolhouse party, Remington and his gay friends got so prankish that they were ejected. In a justice of the peace court he paid the costs for his bunch. He did not like dipping sheep, or helping with lambing, or shearing, or any other drudgery. The market for wool was away down before his first clip sold. In May, 1884, after sheep-ranching for two months over a year, he sold out to become a professional artist. Robert Taft points out that his brief ranching experience was essentially contemporaneous with similarly brief ranching experiences of Theodore Roosevelt, Owen Wister, and...
(The entire section is 3207 words.)