Frederic Remington’s Vision of the “Men with the Bark On”
By Ron Tyler
This story was featured in the July 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art July 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
Frederic Remington has long been something of a puzzle for admirers of western art.
His knowledge of the West and his ability to capture the “real thing,” as editor and friend Poultney Bigelow phrased it, was exceptional. But in many of his best pictures, the backgrounds are fuzzy and look unfinished. In other instances, some of the details are clearly incorrect. And late in life he adopted an impressionistic style that he admitted was informed by the work of French artist Claude Monet, which confounded many of his admirers and obscured even further the details for which he is often touted. Remington’s story is that of a search, and his realization of the significance of “men with the bark on” to his work was key to what he sought.
Remington made his first trip west in 1881. He was back in the West in June 1886—at just the right time. Geronimo and his Apache band had stirred new interest in the West, leading many Americans to believe that it was the most “American” region of the country. Remington got his first experience with the cavalry in summer 1886 when he got a commission from Harper’s to follow General George Crook in his pursuit of the Apaches, who had fled confinement on the reservation and taken to the mountains of Arizona and Sonora. Although Remington never saw Geronimo and took part in no battles, he gained an admiration for the military: “Let anyone who wonders why the troops do not catch Geronimo but travel through a part of Arizona and Sonora and then he will wonder that they even try.” His drawings that summer bespoke “genius … and I loved them for their very roughness,” according to Bigelow, who owned and edited Outing magazine, and although Remington was all but unknown, Bigelow purchased the whole lot to accompany a series of stories on the Apache campaign.
In the midst of his success, three factors combined to enable Remington to add to the painterly laurels he had thus far achieved: his beginning disillusionment with the military, one of his primary subject sources; his recognition that for him, the West was the backdrop for his creativity, rather than the main character; and his frustration with the public’s concept of him as only an illustrator and not a painter. All three greatly affected his work. In the late 1880s and into the 1890s, his paintings seemed to become more static, as in An Indian Trapper (1889) and A Cavalryman’s Breakfast on the Plains (c. 1892), not in the sense of illustration, for his painterly abilities continued to improve and he was selling more pictures than ever to the magazines, but he appeared to lose some of the spiritedness that had characterized a commissioned work such as A Dash for the Timber (1889).
Disillusionment had to have set in after he visited the site of the Wounded Knee massacre in December 1890, where his ideal men of the army, motivated by an intense hand-to-hand encounter as well as revenge for Custer’s defeat, had attacked the Indian camp with rapid-firing Hotchkiss guns. More than 150 Indians had been killed, including forty-four women and eighteen children. Seeing the work of his heroic army, even at a distance—he declined to accompany the burial party back to the campsite—might have planted the seed of doubt in Remington’s mind, but he still yearned for a real war. “We are getting old,” he wrote in 1897, “and one cannot get old without having seen a war.”
As a thoroughgoing adventurer, Remington was among those Americans who wanted a war with Spain in 1898. This was his chance for a real war. “There is bound to be a lovely scrap around Havana,” he wrote in June 1898. “A big murdering—sure.” This would be even better than the Civil War, he predicted, because “we will kill a few Spaniards instead of Anglo Saxons, which will be proper and nice.” With his chauvinism and romantic instincts still intact, and contracts with Hearst’s New York Journal and Harper’s in his pocket, Remington sailed for Cuba, slogged through a few trenches, and missed Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up what he thought was San Juan Hill because he had taken cover in a ditch. The actuality of war raised additional questions in his mind regarding the military. He quickly realized what a deadly game it was to fight snipers who were firing smokeless gun powder from within the impenetrable, dense Caribbean jungles. Cuba showed him that supposedly heroic soldiers died lonely and agonizing deaths in the swamps, more often from disease than from enemy bullets—deaths devoid of symbolism or patriotic significance. He requested transportation back home. The Cuban experience did not turn Remington into a pacifist, but it did diminish his exuberance for the military and, combined with the lessons of Wounded Knee, left him still searching for meaning for his prototypical characters.
The war experience only compounded the frustration Remington had felt after his first one-man show in New York following his return from Europe in 1893. He displayed approximately one hundred paintings in the American Art Association galleries, then held an auction. The sale was a popular success. Theodore Roosevelt wrote that, “I have never so wished to be a millionaire as when you have pictures to sell,” and Remington had netted $7,299 in cash. But he was disappointed. Despite exhibiting what he considered to be his best work, including A Cavalryman’s Breakfast on the Plains, a picture that had been successfully shown in New York only the year before, the buyers were more attracted to what he considered his illustrations than to his paintings. Remington’s inner struggles had not yet produced the superb impressionistic studies that would highlight his later career, but he was painting mature pictures, such as The Fall of the Cowboy (1895), which did bring him some satisfaction.
Rather than his usual action-filled composition, The Fall of the Cowboy is a much calmer work in muted shades of brown, gray, and white—reminiscent of some of the work of his contemporaries, James McNeill Whistler and Winslow Homer. It is a paean to the American cowboy, whose glory days of the open range, which Remington had celebrated in A Dash for the Timber and other paintings, had passed. The painting was one of several illustrations that Remington did for the article “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher,” and it eloquently combines two of the factors that brought an end to the open range and the cattle drives. One was barbed wire, which inexpensively and effectively provided a way of fencing the range; the other was the blizzard of 1885-86, which killed thousands of head of cattle in the northern ranges. The somber mood of the painting seems to perfectly summarize the puncher’s dilemma. The freedom of the open plains has been banished, and he has been reduced from riding and roping and branding to fixing fences and opening gates. “The West is all played out in its romantic aspects,” Remington wrote in 1894. Still, the buyers apparently did not fully appreciate his work, and the sales were modest; nor were the paintings well reviewed.
The winning of the West was over, something that Remington had sensed earlier but was finally forced to admit: “My West … put on its hat, took up its blankets, and marched off the board,” he concluded. “Shall never come west again,” he wrote his wife from Santa Fe in November 1900. “It is all brick buildings—derby hats and blue overhauls [sic]—it spoils my early illusions—and they are my capital.” Had he been only an illustrator, content to report what he saw, his feelings might not have mattered so much in his work. To Remington the West had always been a region of romance and adventure that had revitalized him. Now that was no longer true. Civilization had arrived, and he was forced to a deeper understanding of the significance of the West in his work.
Remington’s ideas of his “men with the bark on” had been forming for some time. In 1895 he had published a gathering of his articles called Pony Tracks, in which his characters confront the difficulties of the western environment: nature, in the form of the “tangled masses of the famous Badlands,” or the “treacherous mazes” of Yellowstone; rough characters, as in the Brulé Sioux that he saw in Dakota, “a perfect animal”; and constant danger, as in the “instant and awful death [that] overtakes the puncher—a horse in a gopher hole, a mad steer,” or a Mexican fighting bull. These men are untainted by the “enfeebling” influences and luxuries of modern life. In 1900 he put together another collection of his writings, entitled Men with the Bark On, which he dedicated to the “Men with the bark on [who] die like the wild animals, unnaturally—unmourned, and even unthought of mostly.”
Remington found his meaning in the heroic past of the West—not in the events of the Gold Rush, Custer’s defeat, the cattle drives, or the pursuit of Geronimo, but in the freedom and space that permitted characters he came to call his “men with the bark on” to survive and excel.
In the search for expression, Remington moved away from narrative action pictures such as A Dash for the Timber to concentrate on the universal elements of life in the West. He had long since abandoned portraits of specific individuals, preferring instead to use stereotypes—a further blurring of the accuracy that many looked for in his paintings. He produced a drawing, American, Mexican, and French Pioneer Types, in 1891, showing some of the types he had developed that would appear in subsequent drawings and paintings. Ridden Down (c. 1905) is one of the best examples of this motif. A Crow brave—a type, but not an identifiable individual—has been “ridden down” by a bunch of Sioux warriors who are obviously intent on his death. The Crow stoically stands at the edge of a bluff, war club in hand. His pony stands uselessly by, exhausted; there is not even a tree to hide behind. But that is the point. He is one of Remington’s “men with the bark on” and would not hide even if he could. In reality, he is not a Crow brave, nor are his pursuers a Sioux war party. He is every brave man preparing to meet his inevitable end; regardless of the war party’s current identity, it is only the agent of that doom. The barren land is any place. Remington used this western setting and the guise of Indian braves because it was the West that he understood and that inspired him. The painting further personifies Remington’s point in that the Crow warrior also represents the demise of the Old West and a way of life.
Now that Remington had discovered the combination that would nourish his genius, he produced some of his most appealing and significant pictures, in which a seemingly historical scene is imbued with symbolic and moral themes. Most are genre scenes so believable and trivial that one might look to the story rather than the moral. His First Lesson, painted in 1903, is a good example. The picture brings a chuckle to veteran horsemen who have suffered kicked shins or worse while training a wild pony, but a close look at the terror of the horse changes the mood of the picture from humorous to one deeply sympathetic with nature’s wild creatures, then to understanding as it becomes clear that this bronc, about to be broken to the saddle, is representative of the wildness Remington had glimpsed in the West in 1881, and of the West itself. Both had been tamed and civilized.
One of Remington’s early efforts to resolve this intellectual dilemma—perhaps before he fully understood it—was his resort to a medium free of time and geography: bronze. His dynamic The Broncho Buster, copyrighted in 1895, embodies his message without the compromising baggage of the western landscape or an accompanying story. In his paintings, the landscapes in the backgrounds had become increasingly sketchy; in the bronze there is no background at all. The rider is a cowboy, but he could be any man; the urgency of the situation would be the same. He stands alone, reminiscent of an era but not dependent on it or on an accompanying story. He is a man that “every man sees with his own eyes,” wrote Remington, attempting to explain his excitement over the accomplishment. The critics also were pleased. One wrote that Remington had “struck his gait.” Remington was even happier: “All paper is pulp now. My oils will all get old wasting … my watercolors will fade—but I am to endure in bronze.” He wrote to a friend, “I am going to rattle down through all the ages, … I am d— near eternal.” His bronzes would not even rust, he said. His statement would endure.
This article is excerpted with permission from the new book Frederic Remington: A Catalogue Raisonné II, edited by Peter H. Hassrick and published by the University of Oklahoma Press in May. The book expands upon the original 1996 edition of the catalogue raisonné and includes essays by art historians on various aspects of Remington’s life and work. For more information visit www.oupress.com.
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