Monday, March 4, 2013

A Dash for the Timber by Frederic Remington

An email crossed our desk wondering why we at The Jade Sphinx have devoted so much time to so many great painters of the American West, yet have paid scant attention to one who is arguably one of the greatest: Frederic Remington.
There are several reasons for the seeming oversight on our part.  First off, Remington’s works are so well cataloged throughout the Web that it seemed a redundancy on our part.  Secondly, I didn’t know if there was anything I could say that was either fresh or interesting.  And finally, in my researches into the man himself … I have to say that no matter how much I admire his work, I don’t like him very much.

Though Remington had several youthful adventures out West, his conception of the time and place were radically different from that of his contemporary, Charles Russell (1864-1926).  Where Russell saw the West as a glorious pageant, a time of freedom and fun and opportunity, Remington saw only the hardship, the brutality and the privation.  Both outlooks are perfectly viable and have more than an element of truth – indeed, either outlook is possible for today’s world – but I could never fully embrace the negativist. 

Frederic Remington (1861-1909) was, if I may slip into the vernacular of the West, born a dude.  He was born in Canton, New York.  His father, Seth Pierre Remington, was a colonel in the Civil War and a businessman who was often absent from the family.  The family moved from Bloomington, Illinois for a brief time, and later resettled in Ogdensburg, New York.
Young Frederic was something of a challenge to his father.  The boy had no great ambition to work too hard, no interest really in the military, and thought he would spend his life as a journalist-illustrator.  While in military school, Remington spent most of his time drawing pictures – he was clearly not soldier material and the older Remington’s dreams of his son going to West Point were squashed.  Instead, young Remington went to art school at Yale, where he was the only male in attendance.  (He also was something of football star.)  After graduating, he used a small inheritance to go West.

Remington spent time in Montana and New Mexico, watching cattlemen, cavalry and foot soldiers, and Indians.  From this trip, he sold a story and illustration to Harper’s Weekly, and in a very roundabout way, his career as an artist began.
Remington’s first great painting was A Dash for the Timber, and it is easy to see how his reputation as a serious artist started here.  It is his first masterpiece.  The picture was commissioned by E. C. Converse, a wealthy New York industrialist who wanted a painting that portrayed “a life-threatening situation.”  Converse knew of Remington from his work with Harper’s Weekly (by this time, Remington had followed General Cook on the trail of Geronimo, the rebel Apache, to get the story for Harper’s.)  As a journalist out West, Remington, knew it to be a place where hard men managed to live off of a harder, more unforgiving land. 

The painting first appeared publicly at The National Academy of Design in 1889; years later, it was bought by a private individual and donated to Washington University.  In 1945, the university sold it to collector David Findlay Sr. for $23,000 so that they university cold then buy a Picasso and a Matisse.  (They should’ve kept the Remington.)  The picture now resides at the Amon Carter Museum.
Let’s look at this remarkable picture.  The first thing of course that draws our eye are the horses.  Remington’s portrayal of airborne horses was revolutionary in 1889.  He was aided in this not just through personal observation, but through the fast-action sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, who invented a technique for taking such fast photos that he was able to capture the horse while it was actually airborne.

These are horses running hard: each muscle is straining, nostrils are flared, eyes are bulging.  Lariats and canteens are suspended in mid-air under the thundering hoof beats, and a cloud of dust follows in their wake.  Look, too, at the contrast of the purplish shadow thrown by the horses and the stark, sandy-colored earth. 
Each and every one of the participants is a distinct personality: except, of course, for the empty-saddled horse, which has obviously lost its rider.  Look, too, at the rigidity of the vaquero on the left obviously hit by a bullet – one of his comrades leans over the keep in him the saddle.  The hats of the riders fold at the brim in the wind, and some of the hardier souls turn round to return gunfire.

The timber, to the left, looks a little thin, and one wonders how much protection it will provide.  Indeed, these look like doomed men.
Aside from the virtuosity of the composition and execution, what Remington really captures is a sense of action.  Painters from the Renaissance onward have been able to create a sense of movement, but not so much of action.  A Dash for the Timber is the kind of painting that leaves the viewer in a sweat of exhaustion.

More than 100 years of Western films have perhaps removed some of the novelty of this composition, but have not diminished at all its power.  This is a remarkable painting.

More Remington tomorrow!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

How would I found out who the private wealthy individual was, who purchased A Dash for Timber and then donated to Washington University? Also, in what year did that occur? Thanks!