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Frederic Remington

producer of more than 3,000 drawings and paintings, 22 bronze sculptures, a novel, a Broadway play, and over 100 articles and stories, almost all of which dealt with some aspect of Western life

Frederic Remington

Frederic Sackrider Remington was born in Canton, New York, on October 4, 1861, the only child of Seth Pierre and Clara Sackrider Remington. His father, a Colonel in the Union Army, spent most of Frederic's first four years fighting in the Civil War, after which he moved the family to Bloomington, Illinois, where he was appointed editor of the Bloomington Republican. The family moved back to Canton in 1867, and, in 1873, to Ogdensburg, New York, where the elder Remington became Collector of the Port.

Large and strong for his age, Frederic was an active child who loved to hunt, swim, ride, and go camping. He also liked art, and began to make drawings and sketches of soldiers and cowboys at an early age. His father hoped he would get appointed to West Point, but Frederic was a poor student, particularly in math. In 1875, Frederic was sent to the Vermont Episcopal Institute, a church-run military school in Burlington, Vermont, where his father hoped discipline would rein in his son's lack of focus, and perhaps lead to a military career. He then transferred to another military school, where he preferred making caricatures and silhouettes of his classmates over his studies. At sixteen he wrote to his uncle: "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.

In September 1878, Remington entered the Yale College School of Fine Arts, but 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. He had to leave after three semesters due to his father's poor health. The elder Remington died in February of 1880, after which Frederic's uncle secured a good paying clerical job in Albany, New York, for him. After his engagement proposal to girlfriend Eva Caten was rejected by her father, Remington gave up his clerical job to become a reporter for his uncle's newspaper, and then went on to a series of other short-lived jobs.

Now nineteen, Remington was still not prepared to settle into a "regular life." Refusing to return to art school, he lived off his inheritance and modest work income and spent most of his time camping and enjoying himself. In August of 1881, Remington made his first trip west, to Montana Territory. He thought about buying a cattle operation, and then a mining interest, but realized he did not have sufficient capital for either. Although he ended up returning home that September, the trip resparked his interest in cowboys, horses, Indians, and everything else having to do with the West. It also marked the beginning of his career as a professional artist -- on February 25, 1882, Harper's Weekly published Remington’s first commercial effort, a re-drawing of a quick sketch on wrapping paper that he had mailed back East.

In March of 1883, Remington moved to Kansas and bought a sheep ranch near Peabody. He invested his entire inheritance, but Remington found ranching to be a rough, boring, isolated occupation, and his neighbors thought of him as lazy. He continued sketching, but he enjoyed even less financial reward from that venture than he did from ranching. After less than a year he sold the ranch and again returned home. In March of 1884, after borrowing money from his mother, he moved to Kansas City and started a hardware business. After that venture failed, he became part owner of a saloon. Later that same year, he returned to Ogdensburg long enough to marry Eva Caten, on October 1. The newlyweds returned to Kansas City almost immediately after the wedding, but Eva did not take to saloon life, nor was she impressed with the sketches of saloon inhabitants that Remington regularly showed her. Within months after the marriage, Eva left Frederic in Kansas City and returned to New York. With his saloon business by then also failing, Frederic started to sketch and paint in earnest, and bartered his sketches for essentials.

Remington soon began selling enough paintings to consider himself a professional artist, and by September of 1885 he had reunited with Eva and settled in Brooklyn, New York, where he studied at the Art Students League to refine his technique. He also submitted illustrations, sketches, and other works for publication with Western themes to Collier's and Harper's Weekly, and his first full page cover under his own name appeared in Harper's Weekly on January 9, 1886.

His Career

The start of Remington's career as a professional artist coincided with "Eastern" interest in the "Wild West," and was propelled by Remington's exaggerated accounts of his intimate knowledge of and experience in that lifestyle. In 1886, Harper's Weekly capitalized on Remington's sudden popularity by sending him to Arizona on a commission to cover the cover the government's war against Geronimo as an artist-correspondent. In addition to the drawings he made for the magazine, Remington also made many sketches that he later turned into full-scale paintings. To expand his commission work, he also began doing drawings for Outing magazine, and by the end of 1886 he had earned $1,200 as a commercial artist.

In 1887, Remington received a commission to do eighty-three illustrations for a book by Theodore Roosevelt, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, which was serialized in The Century Magazine before publication in book form. 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 that same year, and the New York Herald commented that Remington would “one day be listed among our great American painters.” His status as the new trendsetter in Western art was solidified in 1889 when he won a silver medal at the Paris International Exposition. 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 he so desired.

Return of the Blackfoot War Party
Return of the Blackfoot War Party

Remington's first one-man show, in 1890, presented twenty-one paintings at the American Art Galleries of the American Art Association and was very well received. Now very well established in his career, he and Eva bought a large home in New Rochelle, New York. The community's proximity to New York City afforded easy access to publishing houses and galleries, but it was also rural enough to provide Remington with the space he needed for horseback riding and other physical activities that relieved the long hours of concentration required by his work. In 1891 he was elected associate member of the National Academy of Design.

Remington’s fame made him a favorite of the Western Army officers fighting the last Indian battles, and he was frequently invited out West to make their portraits in the field and to gain them national publicity through his articles and illustrations for Harper's Weekly. In turn, Remington got exclusive access to the soldiers and their stories and boosted his reputation with the reading public. His 1889 painting A Dash for the Timber depicts eight cavalrymen shooting at Apaches in the rear as they attempt to outrun the Indians.

A Dash for the Timber
A Dash for the Timber

Through the 1890s, 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. In 1892, he painted A Cavalryman's Breakfast on the Plains. Gradually, he transitioned from the premiere chronicler-artist of the Old West to its most important historian-artist. In 1893, he formed a partnership with Owen Wister, who became the leading writer of Western stories at the time. His focus continued on outdoor action, and he rarely depicted scenes in gambling and dance halls. He avoided frontier women as well. His painting A Misdeal (1897) is a rare instance of indoor cowboy violence.

A Cavalryman's Breakfast on the Plains
A Cavalryman's Breakfast on the Plains

A Misdeal
A Misdeal

In 1895 Remington decided to try his hand at sculpture. With help from friend and sculptor Frederick Ruckstull, Remington constructed his first armature and clay model, a “broncho 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, it was a successful first effort, earning him $6,000 over three years.

Broncho Buster
Broncho Buster

By the late-1890's Remington's favorite subject for magazine illustration was military scenes, although his "Cowboys and Indians" remained his chief source of income. Growing bored with routine illustration, he was looking forward to a military conflict which would provide the opportunity to be a heroic war correspondent not unlike fellow artist/journalist Ernie Pyle. That opportunity came in 1898, when he became a war correspondent and illustrator during the Spanish-American War, 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.

Scream of the Shrapnel
Scream of the Shrapnel

In 1900 Harper’s Weekly 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, and began illustrating regularly for Collier's. He also began focusing more on sculpture, forming a relationship with Roman Bronze Works of New York, the first foundry in the United States to devote itself exclusively to the age-old "lost wax" method of bronze casting.

By 1901 Collier's was buying Remington’s illustrations on a steady basis. His second novel, John Ermine of the Yellowstone (1902), was a modest success but was completely overshadowed by the best seller The Virginian, written by Owen Wister. After John Ermine, Remington decided to quit writing and illustration to focus on sculpture and painting. As his style matured, Remington portrayed his subjects in every light of day. His nocturnal paintings, such as A Taint on the Wind (1906) and Scare in the Pack Train, are more impressionistic and loosely painted, and were among his most popular later works. In 1903, Remington signed a four-year contract with Collier's, which devoted its entire March 18, 1905 issue to him.

Scare in the Pack Train
Scare in the Pack Train

On March 16, 1905, Remington received a commission from the Fairmount Park Art Association in Philadelphia to create a large statue of a cowboy, which was erected in 1908 on a jutting rock along Kelly Drive, a site Remington specifically chose for the piece after having a horseman pose for him in that exact location. Philadelphia's Cowboy was Remington's first and only large-scale bronze, and is one of the earliest examples of site-specific art in the United States.

Cowboy
Cowboy

Cowboy would prove to be Remington's last major success, as the financial panic of 1907 caused a slow down in his sales and the general public's fascination for Western-themed art was beginning to wane in favor of fantasy art. In 1908 he sold his New Rochelle home and moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut. He spent his last years virtually studio bound due to poor health brought on by severe obesity (he weighed over 300 pounds by then) -- his financial success had allowed him to lead an extravagant lifestyle that included an indulgence in food without sufficient exercise to work off the calories. He died at his Ridgefield home on December 26, 1909, after an emergency appendectomy led to peritonitis; he was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Canton, New York.

Over the course of his career, Frederic Remington produced more than three thousand drawings and paintings, twenty-two bronze sculptures, a novel, a Broadway play, and over one hundred articles and stories.

The Way of an Indian, by Frederic Remington (NOOK book)
The Way of an Indian, by Frederic Remington (NOOK book)

SOURCES
American Masters http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/frederic-remington/about-frederic-remington/688/
Frederic Remington Art Museum http://www.fredericremington.org/
Frederic Remington, The Complete Works http://www.frederic-remington.org/

SEE ALSO
Civil War
West Point
Theodore Roosevelt
Spanish-American War

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The Robinson Library >> Fine Arts >> Art History: United States

This page was last updated on 05/20/2017.