The Wild West of Yester-Year

Frederic Remington
By Rachel Kovaciny

Writers of westerns today, like me, all share one problem: the Old West is gone forever. Oh, cowboys still exist. You can visit dude ranches and learn to rope, herd and wrangle. But I was born a hundred years too late. If I’d been born in western Iowa in 1880 instead of 1980, I would’ve been able to experience the tail end of the Old West instead of studying it in historical records. Sure, I’ve ridden horses, mucked out stalls, pitched fodder to cattle, fed calves from a bucket, and hoed weeds in the fields. But that just means I’m descended from Iowa farmers, not that I’m a rancher or a cowgirl or a pioneer. We writers and artists today have to work with what we have, the memories set down by those who rode the trails, tilled the land, and fought the elements a hundred years ago. The records those people left can teach and inspire us. They can give us a taste of a life we can only imagine.


Artist Frederic Remington left one of the most accessible, inspiring records of the Old West. His paintings, sketches, and sculptures captured the essence of frontier life while it occurred. Though he was born in upstate New York and attended Yale Art School, Remington spent much of his life on the frontier. He went west in the early 1880s, seeking adventure, but finding his life’s calling. For several years, he ranched, hunted, kept a saloon, tried prospecting, and even rode with the U.S. Army as it pursued Geronimo. He returned to New York with a portfolio full of sketches and a heart full of love for the west and those who inhabited it.


At first, he found little market for his drawings and sketches. Though he sold a few illustrations to periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly, he was unsuccessful at supporting himself and his new wife with his artwork. That changed when he showed it to a Yale classmate, Poultney Bigelow, the art editor of Outing Magazine. Bigelow bought everything in Remington’s portfolio, then ordered more. Suddenly, Remington’s work was in demand. And not just by magazines and newspapers! For Remington achieved that rare position of an artist who was publically popular and critically acclaimed. Major art societies and organizations such as the National Academy of Design hosted shows of his work.  With public and critical success came financial success. Remington could build a home worthy of his wife, Eva, whose wealthy family tried for several years to dissuade her from marrying him. He travelled extensively throughout the west into the 1890s, sketching and drawing and accumulating new material. He accompanied the Army while it hunted Sioux warriors across the Dakotas and Montana though he missed the massacre at Wounded Knee.

Over the course of his career, Frederic Remington produced over 2,500 paintings and drawings. He also created 25 bronze sculptures as filled with movement as his paintings. What Remington depicted best were men and horses in action. Cowboys, natives, soldiers, outlaws, hunters, trappers, miners—if you can think of an archetypical western character, Remington drew or sketched or painted or sculpted one. And he didn’t render them standing still, gazing off into the middle distance and looking nice. He captured writhing, bucking, racing, rearing horses. A man flying through the air as a wild bronc crow-hops below. Indians pursuing buffalo. An outlaw lying dead over a poker hand. His paintings almost seem to move when you study them as if they can’t contain all that raw excitement.


In fact, Remington drew criticism over the way he depicted horses galloping. He frequently showed them with all four hooves off the ground, either gathered beneath them or flung out in full stride. People scoffed and said no, horses always had at least one hoof on the ground at all times. Photography eventually proved Remington to be correct: horses gallop with all four feet in the air at once. Remington was not boastful about having been in the right about how a horse gallops. He had made his artwork accurately portray what he had observed over his lifelong study of horses, that’s all. Remington kept a stable on his estate in upstate New York and fitted his studio out with extra-large double doors so he could bring them into his studio and draw or paint them from life. He once said he wanted his epitaph to read simply, “He knew horses.”


Eventually, Remington became friends with two other Easterners who loved the west as profoundly as he did: Theodore Roosevelt and Owen Wister. One became the President and fought to preserve much of the wild lands in the west, while the other wrote what many consider the first true western novel, The Virginian. Thanks to these three, and many more like them, writers and artists and history students today can visualize the Wild West with at least a semblance of understanding.