Frederic Remington | The Bronco Buster

By Michael Duty

The Bronco Buster [1895], bronze, 233⁄8 x 151⁄2, courtesy Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, WY, gift of G.J. Guthrie Nicholson Jr. and son. sculpture, southwest art.
The Bronco Buster [1895], bronze, 233⁄8 x 151⁄2, courtesy Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, WY, gift of G.J. Guthrie Nicholson Jr. and son.

In 1895 America’s most popular illustrator of the West had reached something of a creative impasse. Frederic Remington’s vision of the adventure and drama of the waning days of the frontier had entertained and informed thousands of Americans for more than a decade in the pages of such popular publications as Harper’s Weekly and Collier’s. His work was perhaps as widely known as any other American artist of the day. Rem-ington had traveled extensively throughout the West, often in the company of the U.S. Cavalry in pursuit of such infamous Native American chiefs as Geronimo. Many of those experiences had led to drawings, illustrations, and paintings that captured the popular imagination. Indeed, for many Americans, the Remington vision of the West was the real West—bold, dangerous, romantic, and exhilarating.

While Remington’s work remained as much in demand as ever, by the mid-1890s he was tiring of the constraints of illustration. More and more, he sought to define himself as an artist rather than as one who simply added pictures to a writer’s words.

Remington was also experiencing doubts about his artistic ability, even being driven at one point to burn more than 100 finished paintings because he felt they were inferior. He desperately wanted to break free of both the creative limitations of illustration and the idea that he was merely an illustrator and not an artist. While popularity had come his way, critical acclaim was lukewarm at best.

Prospecting for Cattle [1889], oil, 291⁄4 x 501⁄4, courtesy BBHC, gift of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney., painting, southwest art.
Prospecting for Cattle [1889], oil, 291⁄4 x 501⁄4, courtesy BBHC, gift of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney.

Fortunately for all of us, Reming-ton found a way to re-energize his artistic career and establish himself as an American artist of the first rank. In the late 1800s, he began experimenting in a medium totally new to him—sculpting. He did so with a little encouragement from other artists and friends and a great deal of determination. Over the course of about a year he worked to produce what has become in many ways his signature work of art—The Bronco Buster (or Broncho Buster, as he spelled it).

Today that sculpture remains not only his most identifiable work of art but also a piece that embodies the romance and drama of the American West. Over the last hundred years, the subject of rider and wild horse caught in a violent, swirling contest of wills has been attempted with varying degrees of success by countless artists. More than a few, no doubt, have drawn inspiration from Remington’s original. It was a true breakthrough piece not only for Remington but for bronze sculpting and American art in general. Before The Bronco Buster, no one had attempted such a delicate balance of intense action on a support as small as the horse’s hind legs. Remington conceived the sculpture in terms of its overall action, possibly inspired by his own earlier drawings and paintings of similar subjects. He had no idea of the difficulties it would present to those who cast it. Rather than be deterred by those difficulties, Remington simply worked with the foundry until the casting process was perfected.

Radisson and Groseilliers [1905], oil, 171⁄4 x 30, courtesy BBHC, gift of Mrs. Karl Frank., painting, southwest art.
Radisson and Groseilliers [1905], oil, 171⁄4 x 30, courtesy BBHC, gift of Mrs. Karl Frank.

The result is a sculpture that captures the quintessential vision of the old West. It is a moment of high drama that is essentially timeless. The determined rider and the bucking bronco are caught forever in this contest, with the outcome of the drama limited only by the viewer’s imagination. While one can spin any number of stories around the subject of the sculpture, it is not tied to any specific event. Narrative here is less important than the feeling conveyed.

Much of the piece’s power and continued popularity lies in how masterfully Remington was able to convey the action. Consider for a moment that while the sculpture never moves, the viewer is intensely aware of movement, of the action that is about to occur. In an age before cinema was widespread, this sculpture was able to capture the rhythm of horse and rider like none had before. It is fluid and elegant, and the drama is omnipresent.

The Bronco Buster was immediately successful. Sold throughout Remington’s lifetime in stores such as Tiffany’s, it was the artist’s most sought-after bronze. After his death, castings continued to be produced with and without official sanction by his widow. Today it is still prized by collectors.

The original editions were produced with the sand-casting process; later Remington, with Rico Bertelli, was one of the earliest artists in the country to use the lost-wax method of bronze casting. This method allowed for changes in subsequent editions such as switching to woolly chaps for the rider or repositioning the cowboy’s hands. Those changes were for the most part superficial and did not change the overall composition of the piece.

Even before The Bronco Buster became a financial success, Remington himself felt that its completion was the pinnacle of his artistic career. While working on it, he wrote to his friend, the novelist Owen Wister, that his paintings would literally and critically fade but that his bronzes would endure forever. He called his sculptures “muds” and proclaimed to Wister that he and they “would rattle down through the ages.”

Twenty other sculptures followed The Bronco Buster, but none was as popular or cast as many times. Interestingly, the last sculpture Remington completed was a larger version of the famous piece. He finished the model shortly before his untimely death in 1909 and, according to his letters and diaries, intended to phase out production of the smaller model in favor of the larger version.

The Bronco Buster was an artistic success as well as a financial one for Remington. Perhaps buoyed by a sense of personal accomplishment, he began creating paintings that were less and less illustrative in nature, less concerned with a literal narrative than with the conveyance of mood. Knowing that his bronzes were selling well allowed him to rely less on illustration assignments and to press for more artistic freedom when he worked for publications such as Collier’s.

Remington’s paintings such as Radisson and Groseilliers became less populated and focused more on individuals. His subjects were often caught in climatic moments between life and death. Remington edited out extraneous details to bring the primary figures to center stage. The action became more focused and compact; in short, many of his paintings became more like his sculptures.

In The Bronco Buster, Remington took a single element of western life and turned it into an icon of the West. Because the essential action of the moment is captured so well, the piece is a perpetual symbol of life at that particular time while also representing all the inherent human drama of such a struggle. The rider is engaged in a dangerous activity, and a false move, a lack of concentration, or a failure of will could result in death. But along with the danger, there is a sense of adventure and excitement. Here is an instance in which man controls his own destiny. His skill and ability will determine the outcome.

This sort of individual test is intimately tied up with our perception of the old West. Remington and other western artists, both historic and contemporary, have done much to create and perpetuate the perception of the West as a place where men play out primal conflicts and take charge of their destiny. It is a romantic notion but one that endures, which is one reason that The Bronco Buster’s popularity endures.

Remington explored this theme in many of his works. The West that Remington portrayed was a place where man was often caught between opposing forces—peace and warfare, life and death. One of his great talents as an artist was to create that tension with brush strokes on a canvas or with fluid lines in his bronze figures. In these works of art, an individual’s fate hangs in the balance, giving the piece a sense of immediacy and power. We can all relate on a visceral and palpable level. As we imagine the fate of The Bronco Buster, we are reminded of our own humanity. A hundred years after the sculpture’s creation, it remains a remarkable achievement.

Featured in July 1998