Frederick Remington & Charles Russell

The Bronco Buster by Frederic Remington. painting, southwest art.
The Bronco Buster by Frederic Remington

By Henry Isaacs

Frederic Remington [1861-1909] and Charles Russell [1864-1926] never met but were compared throughout and after their lifetimes by the press and the public. Together they created the image of 19th-century western America for the rest of the world. More than 100 paintings and sculptures have been loaned to the exhibit Remington, Russell, and the Language of Western Art, which continues through January 28 at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN. Subsequent venues include the Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, FL (February 16-April 4); the Portland (OR) Art Museum (April 26-June 24); the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, Santa Ana, CA (July 12-September 16); and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Norman, OK (October 5-December 9).

Following are excerpts from the catalog written by Peter H. Hassrick, curator of the exhibit and director of the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

Both Frederic Remington and Charles Russell were born into prosperous, conservative families and raised in the post-Civil War era when the mountains, vast prairies, and distant Pacific shores invited the country to look west for economic and spiritual renewal. There was certainly enough in all this to capture the fancy of Remington, born in Canton, NY, in 1861, and Russell, born in St. Louis, MO, in 1864. They both enjoyed reasonably good secondary educations and attended military academies. Their parents recognized and encouraged the nascent artistic spark that glowed in each boy’s heart. Remington spent a year and a half at Yale’s School of Fine Arts; Russell was offered but declined similar art lessons.

Cowboy Bargaining for an Indian Girl by Charles Russell. painting, southwest art.
Cowboy Bargaining for an Indian Girl by Charles Russell

In the spring of 1880, Russell, not yet 16 years old, persuaded his parents to let him go west to work on a ranch in Montana. A little more than a year later, in August 1881, Remington also headed for Montana. What Remington and Russell wanted out of the West as young men was essentially the same thing: to actualize the myth of the frontier as a place of self-discovery and freedom from social restraint.

Remington and Russell helped create and perpetuate the two most pervasive facets of the western myth that evolved in turn-of-the-century America: first, the equating of violence and lawlessness with the concept of masculinity, and second, the attendant although seemingly obverse notion that the West was a Garden of Eden a bountiful reservoir of resources and natural beauty that was infinitely replenishable.

There was a fundamental difference between Remington’s and Russell’s view of Indians. Russell’s interpretation of the conflict between Anglo-European pioneers and native people clearly embraces the Indians’ perspective, inviting the viewer to take their side. Russell saw natural man, fragile and transitory as he was, as supreme and worthy of celebration, while Remington commended the fall of natural man at the hands of civilization. He regarded Indians as savage, and the cavalry in Remington’s eyes, the prime agent of civilization and his favorite subject was their vanquisher. But later in his career Remington adopted Russell’s perspective: in his ranking of humanity, natural man represented by the Native American, particularly the bygone Indian of buffalo days achieved an elevated status.

The two artists have been remembered primarily for their images of the cowboy and their fundamental roles in creating both the cowboy’s national popularity and the concomitant myth. Remington’s reputation included both the false credit that he had lived the life of a robust cowboy and the clear fact that he excelled as a horseman. Russell had known and worked with cowboys but always disclaimed ever having been among their ranks. Remington’s images had the greater impact primarily because his audience was nationwide. He popularized the figure of the cowboy and broke ground in establishing the enormous demand for cowboy illustrators, Russell included.

Together Remington and Russell have left a pictorial record of the West unprecedented in its richness of observation, imagination, and artistry. In fact, they fashioned America’s image of the vanished western frontier. They had been present at a fundamentally transformative time in the West: the 1880s and 1890s. They were willing, interested, and able to address artistically one of the principal shifts in western history, when a frontier of boundless possibilities became in the American imagination a more mundane region whose uniqueness lay in its past. As they approached that task—each depicting it in his own style, perspective, and technical methodologies—they did so with an independence of spirit and a conscious avoidance of canonical norms. Today Remington and Russell are worthy claimants of a title conferred a half century ago: the most celebrated of all the artists of the West.

Featured in January 2001