Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An Assault on His Dignity by Frederick Remington

In an earlier post we discussed the influence of Charlie Russell, the cowboy artist, on our collective memory of the American West.  Russell shared the honor of being the premiere artist of that time and place with another gifted painter, Frederick Remington (1861-1909).  Though there is a great commonality in the approach and aesthetic of both painters, each man had a radically different vision of the West.
The West of Russell is a gentler place; there are certainly rough-and-tumble aspects and very real danger, but, in essence, Russell’s West was a boy’s dream of freedom and escape.  Russell thought the West was a rapidly vanishing Eden, and longing and innocence are almost always part of his work.
Remington’s West was a place infinitely more harsh.  The common image of a bleached skull of a steer (shorthand for the badlands of the west in everything from films to animated cartoons) was first used by Remington; indeed, it became for him something of a motif.  It is not unusual in Remington to find cavalry men defending a waterhole in the pitiless American desert, or American Indians run down in defeat, exhausted and hopelessly outgunned, or men on horseback fleeing a raging storm. 
The figures in Remington often have a remarkable energy, and he was masterful in his depiction of the horse-in-motion.  He style was loose, almost like that of the Impressionists working then in Europe, and he was a gifted draughtsman that could work in oil, watercolor, and pen and ink.  Later in his career, he was a gifted sculptor in bronze, as well.
Initially, Remington intended to be a journalist, drawing and painting on the side.  He began his art studies in 1878 at the newly formed School of Fine Arts at Yale, in New Haven, CT.  He also studied, for only a few months, at the Arts Students League in New York.  However, Remington was not temperamentally equipped for formal art training: drawing from plaster casts left him chomping at the bit.  He started roaming the American West in 1881, travelling through the Dakotas, Montana, the Arizona Territory and Texas.  He returned east in 1882 and started providing illustrations for Harper’s Weekly. 
In a 1905 article in Collier's Remington later recalled his early inspiration for depicting Western subjects, writing: "I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever….And the more I considered the subject, the bigger the forever loomed. Without knowing exactly how to do it, I began to try to record some facts around me, and the more I looked the more the panorama unfolded … I saw the living, breathing end of three American centuries of smoke and dust and sweat."
Remington collaborated with Own Wister (1860-1938), author of the first significant Western novel, The Virginian (1902) on The Evolution of the Cowpuncher, published in Harper’s Monthly in 1893; Remington provided the concept for the project, including factual information, and Wister wrote the stories.  It is a cornerstone work of the Western genre.
An extraordinarily fat man, Remington died after an emergency appendectomy led to peritonitis on Boxing Day, 1909. His weight complicated the anesthesia and the surgery, and chronic appendicitis was cited in the post-mortem examination as an underlying factor in his death. 
An Assault on His Dignity is a wonderfully representative work of Remington’s oeuvre.  The cowpunchers that surround the American Indian boy are painted with a few deft strokes, but there is more than sufficient detail to provide each figure with a distinct character.  The men lean forward on their saddles with a predatory pose, as if ready to reach out for the boy. 
But look closely at the composition.  As the cowpunchers surround and loom over the very small Indian boy, the shadows of the men and horses are dark and oppressive on the parched scrub.  The boy, who is naked (or nearly naked) boasts no saddle or hat, and looks into the distance, away from his tormentors.  His face is beardless and almost half-formed: the face of an infant.  He cannot allow himself the luxury of a reaction, as the cowpunchers would use that, too, against him; however, his horse is bug-eyed and alert to danger.  As always with Remington, the horses have both monumentality and grace of movement – each animal is believable and three-dimensional.  The extraordinary expanse of the Western horizon is delineated by a limited palette of warm yellows and cool blues and whitish purples, demarking great distance. 
Remington, with great economy of style, centrally locates the victim (the Indian boy), surrounding him with predators in a desolate landscape.  There is no help to be had, and he is all alone in the wide-open spaces: a unique type of sunlit terror.

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