Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Fight for the Water Hole, by Frederic Remington

A copy of this picture hung on my wall when I was Public Affairs Director at Hoffmann-La Roche, which perhaps says more about the shot-‘em-dead working environment of a global pharmaceutical company than any war stories I could share.
Painted in 1903 on canvas (3' 4.13" x 27.13") and currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, Fight for the Water Hole is a remarkable picture.   As we said previously, Frederic Remington (1861-1909) thought of the West mostly as a place of peril, privation and as a land where heroes met (or where ploughed under by) these challenges.

To demonstrate how Remington illustrated peril, look closely at what is happening here.  The water hole is really slightly more than a miserable puddle of water – a puddle in the middle of a vast expanse of arid desert.  Five men and their horses are huddled inside, and the men hold their rifles at the ready, for protecting the water hole is their sole hope for survival.  Indians circle in the distance.  And Remington doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for cowboys: in the upper right of the picture is what seems to be one of his trademark cattle skulls, bleached white by the sun.
Remington divides the painting into broad swatches of color, putting the viewer slightly above the action.  This not only gives us a bird’s eye view of the steely-eyed westerner (who looks a bit like actor Sam Elliott), but also provides a view of the purplish mountains in the far distance.  This expanse increases the importance of the waterhole: though it is large in the painting, it is infinitesimal in the scheme of the landscape.

The long shadow on the right side of the hole does not bode well for our heroes – day is clearly waning, making them more vulnerable.  This is especially poignant given the historical moment at which it was painted: in 1903, people were distraught by the closing off of the West.  Here, not only the West but Western heroes are facing an irrecoverable end of their own.  And, in view of the recent Indian Wars, here are heroes of which we will never see the like again.
Fight for the Waterhole was published in 1903 in Collier’s Weekly as part of Remington's four-year contract with the magazine to reproduce one painting each month. This alliance encouraged Remington to experiment with his technique, and as seen here, the results included looser brushwork, refined compositions, a bolder palette, and the development of psychological qualities in his art.  The action is inspired by landscapes such as the Sierra Bonita Ranch in Arizona, and on the Buffalo Wallow Fight in the Texas Panhandle during the Indian Wars.  However, I believe Remington painted this picture while comfortably ensconced in New York.

More Remington tomorrow!

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