Picks and Pans Review: Frederic Remington: the Master Works

updated 04/25/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1988 01:00AM

Edited by Michael Edward Shapiro and Peter H. Hassrick

The Sioux and the Blackfeet still roamed freely over the plains when artist Frederic Remington headed west about 100 years ago. His art, championed by another great outdoorsman, Theodore Roosevelt, chronicled the epic adventures, conflicts and battles of America's last frontier. His countless oils and sculptures of cowboys, cavalrymen and Indians thundering forward on horseback capture with relentless energy a world that has vanished forever. This overview of his career is an ambitious book. While cowboys and Indians have never been considered the stuff of serious art, the authors seek for Remington the critical respect accorded such artists as his contemporaries Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. Remington, born in Canton, N.Y., in 1861, was a complicated, at times eccentric, critter. A large man (he weighed nearly 300 lbs. toward the end of his life), Remington had boundless enthusiasms and—not unlike his French contemporary Edgar Degas—prejudices. "Jews—Injuns—Chinamen—Italians—Huns, the rubbish of the earth I hate," he wrote to a friend. He swore off Europe too, yet he was acutely aware of the European art world. As Peter Hassrick, director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center writes in one of this volume's essays, Remington's paintings were "substantially informed by French art." He was also alert to domestic influences, in the early 1900s producing dreamy landscapes influenced by American Impressionism. Remington worked tirelessly, transforming himself from illustrator—he tossed off sketches and paintings for Harper's and Collier's in the 1880s—to serious painter. He spent four years in the West from 1880 to 1884; after his marriage he settled in the East, returning to the West periodically. He often traveled with the Army in mule-drawn wagons or, until he was too heavy, on horseback. He worked in his studio in New Rochelle, N.Y., having learned it wasn't easy to draw in the field. "My game would vanish like quail," he wrote of trying to sketch some Apaches. Remington's violent paintings of hunts and battles made him famous, but in 1895 he took up sculpture, developing an original body of work before he died in 1909. Co-author Shapiro, chief curator of the St. Louis Art Museum, says Remington's small, daringly composed bronzes have been underappreciated, except by the artist. "I am to endure in bronze," he boasted. "I am going to rattle down through all the ages, unless some anarchist invades the old mansion and knocks it off the shelf." Frederic Remington, a revealing, handsome work, accompanies a traveling exhibition of Remington's oils and bronzes. After its run ends on May 22 at the St. Louis Art Museum, the show will go to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Abrams, $35)

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