By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
[Pictured: The Old Stage-Coach of the Plains, Frederic Remington (1901); Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX]
As a writer of historical fiction, inspiration comes in many forms. If you are writing about the American West, or just interested in the period, one of the best ways to truly understand the scope of the land and its people is through art. And when it comes to images that captured the American West of the late 19th century, there are few artists whose work compares to FREDERIC REMINGTON.
However, finding one’s destiny is not easy, especially when one is torn between what they love to do and the expectations of others.
The only child of Colonel Seth Pierrepont Remington and Clarissa Bascom Sackrider, Frederic Sackrider Remigton was born 04 October 1861 in Canton, New York.
Despite the fact he lived only 48 years, the work of Frederic Remington immortalizes a time, place, and way of life that still fascinates people throughout the world. Regardless of whatever artistic medium Remington used during his career, his legacy and talent has made him a visual historian of the American West.
Then again, when it comes to history, his family also held a remarkable presence in the history of America and its way of life. On his mother’s side, the Bascom relations came to America in the early 1600s, and founded Windsor, Connecticut. From England, the Remington family came to America in 1637.
Among Remington’s blood relations were George Catlin, portrait artist of American Indians, and Earl W. Bascom, a cowboy sculptor. The founder of the Remington Arms Company (America’s oldest gun manufacturer), Eliphalet Remington was also a cousin.
Additionally, three famous mountain men – Jonathan T. Warner, Robert ‘Doc’ Newell, and Jedediah S. Smith – were family relations. Whereas, his father must have inherited his leadership and military skills from another famous family relation—none other than George Washington, first President of the United States of America.
Colonel Remington served in the Union Army during the Civil War and was absent a great deal during the first four years of his son’s life. When the War ended, the family moved to Bloomington, Illinois where Colonel Remington worked briefly as editor for The Republican.
[Pictured: Frederic Remington (1870); Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX]
From an early age, he made sketches of soldiers and cowboys. He enjoyed hunting, fishing, camping, riding, and swimming.
On the downside, he wasn’t a good student and his father, Colonel Remington, worried for his son’s future. Hopes of a military career for his only son, which included getting into West Point, might be a problem. Believing a more disciplined school would improve his son’s academics, the family moved to Ogdensburg, New York.
[Pictured: Frederic Remington (1874); Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX]
Not surprisingly, his natural ability and affinity for art pulled Remington to Yale University’s art school.
At Yale, he was the only student in his first year with none other than German-born painter John Henry Niemeyer as his instructor. Yet even at art school, he disliked the rigid formality of lessons. Drawing from still life did not interest him. He preferred drawing movement—or life in action. Although he played football at Yale, watching football and boxing matches proved more exciting to the destined artist. His first published drawing was a cartoon titled “bandaged football player” and appeared in the Yale Courant.
In 1879, he left Yale to tend his father, suffering from tuberculosis. In 1880, Colonel Remington died at the age of fifty.
An uncle secured a clerical position for his nephew in Albany, New York, which enabled Frederic to return to Ogdensburg on weekends to continue courting his girlfriend.
Eva Adele Caten was two years older than Frederic, and a student at St. Lawrence University. When Eva’s father refused permission for the couple to marry, Remington briefly became a reporter at his uncle’s newspaper then pursued other short-term forms of employment.
Rather than return to art school, Remington embraced his yearning for adventure. With the help of his inheritance and other jobs for income, he traveled west to Montana. A bit of a dreamer, he thought to acquire a cattle operation or invest in a mining venture. He soon realized, however, he didn’t have enough funds.
In 1881, not yet 20 years old, Frederic Remington found himself surrounded by the American West. The sights and sounds resonated and triggered his talent for art.
He saw unfenced, unending vistas of prairies, and herds of buffalo steadily being extinguished. Cowboys with skilled horsemanship. He felt the intense power of the sun upon parched land, and the bitter sting of snow, ice, and wind in winter. And he was there 25 years before Zane Grey and N.C. Wyeth.
A hasty sketch made on wrapping paper at this time, was mailed back East and became Remington’s first published sketch with Harper’s Weekly.
Within a year, he sold the ranch and returned home. For his next venture, and with funds provided by his mother, he went to Kansas City and opened a hardware store. When that business failed, he invested what remained of his funds in half ownership of a saloon.
Remington returned to Ogdensburg in 1884. Believing his daughter’s determined suitor owned a hardware store, Eva Caten's father granted permission for her to marry Frederic Remington. The newlyweds traveled back to Kansas City. However, life in Kansas City was not what Eva expected. She didn't like the fact her husband was partner in a saloon, or that he spent time sketching the sordid people who patronized the business. When the truth of his occupation became known, Eva returned to Ogdensburg.
Sometimes, one must hit rock bottom to find themselves. With his young wife gone, and the saloon not doing well, Frederic Remington pursued painting and drawing the American West as an occupation. In short order, he found success, and realized his art could become a profession. When he returned next to Ogdensburg, New York, he reunited with his wife with newfound hope in a career as a professional artist.
The couple moved to Brooklyn and Remington studied at the Art Students League of New York. Learning that newspapers were hungry for illustrations and articles about the West, Remington realized he had just what they needed. Soon, Harper’s Weekly and Collier’s published his sketches and illustrations. And on 06 January 1886, Frederic Remington became first page news, A full-page cover under his name was published in Harper’s Weekly. He was just 25 years old.
His increasing popularity brought new opportunity. In 1886, Remington was sent to Arizona by Harper’s Weekly. As artist-correspondent for the publication, his assignment was to cover the war between the United States Government and Geronimo. Although he was unable to paint Geronimo, he took the opportunity to refine his talent by authentically mastering what would become the Remington palette of colors that he witnessed in the West, particularly the shadows of horses.
In addition to continuing with commission work at Harper’s Weekly, Remington provided drawings for Outing Magazine. He produced ink and wash drawings for commercial reproductions.
In late 1887, 27-year old Frederic Remington received a commission to provide 83 illustrations for ‘Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail’, a book authored by none other than Theodore Roosevelt.
Before its publication, the book would be serialized in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. At that time, 29-year old Roosevelt felt he had a lot in common with Remington. He had also lost money on a ranch but had accumulated great knowledge and experience on the American West. Needless to say, the commission as illustrator not only gave Remington great recognition, it began a lifelong friendship with Theodore Roosevelt.
Harper’s Weekly (who now had first option to buy Remington’s work before he sold it elsewhere) promoted Frederic Remington as “He draws what he knows, and he knows what he draws.”
In 1890, 29-year old Remington had his first one-man show at the American Art Galleries, where 21 of his paintings were exhibited to critical acclaim.
That same year, Frederic and Eva moved to New Rochelle, New York where Remington could have a more extensive studio for work, as well as a rural lifestyle where he could enjoy horseback riding and the outdoors. The Gothic revival style house was named Endion by Remington, a word meaning “the place where I live” in the Ojibwa language.
Among the Army officers still embroiled with Indian battles, Frederic Remington was both respected and invited to document history. Given exclusive access to the soldiers, he became known as “The Soldier Artist”. As a side note, one cannot help but feel his father would be particularly proud of this title.
Without question, Remington's paintings and illustrations of Indian tribes, cowboys, soldiers, weather, horses in motion, etc., documented the imagery of a place, a time, a way of life, and the diverse people who lived in the American West.
In many respects, he was the right person at the right time to witness and use his talent to visually preserve something that all too quickly was disappearing.
For people of his era, they were able to see the West. The shadows of the horses. The hues and colors of changing Seasons. The way the wind lifted the edge of a Indian’s blanket. The slashing rain and the unprotected rider, and the weathered lines on the faces of the people who called the American West their home.
Frederic Remington is now considered one of the great American artists. He produced over 3,000 paintings and illustrations. His work was published in Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Monthly, Century Monthly Illustrated Magazine, Collier’s, Outing, Boy’s Life, and Cosmopolitan.
Many of his illustrations were accompanied by articles that he wrote. In fact, his magazine articles were published into works of fiction and non-fiction. His eight published titles are Pony Tracks (1895), A Rogers Ranger in the French and Indian War (1897), Crooked Trails (1898), Sundown Leflare (1899), Stories of Peace and War (1899), Men with the Bark On (1900), John Ermine of the Yellowstone (1902), and The Way of an Indian (1906).
Frederic Remington died on 26 December 1909 after an emergency Appendectomy. He was 48 years old, survived by his beloved wife, Eva. [Note: Eva Remington died in 1918.] The couple had no children.
At the funeral, one of Remington’s oldest friends, Almon Gunnison, gave the following eulogy.
Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to share the story of Frederic Remington, and his work. ~ AKB
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, NY