"They Are a Fine Outfit Those Blackfeet": Frederic Remington in Western Canada

By Peter H. Hassrick



Beyond the expressions of bias and moral conscience, Remington's painting also represented a new direction he was taking as an artist. He wished to win approbation in formal academic circles, in addition to his growing acceptance and popularity as an illustrator. As the art critic George Sheldon noted of a large oil painting, Return of a Blackfeet War Party (1887, Anschutz Collection, Denver) [Plate 13], "his splendid reputation as an illustrator for the magazine has failed to satisfy the ambition of an artist who bids fair to become equally established as a professional painter."[11]

Over the next several years, Remington returned time and again to subjects related to his western Canadian adventure of 1887. Moreover, he continued to explore pictorial metaphors of loss, transformation, and cultural dissolution. His canvas Conjuring Back the Buffalo [Plate 12] connotes pathos [12] and, given the fact that it is not a known native ceremony, reveals the theatrical invention that Remington brought to many of his canvases. The bleached bison skulls and the golden light evoke a sense of passing. Its inscription though, "Bow River -- Can. Far North West," suggests empirical observation and helped persuade the artist's audience to think that it was both compassionate in sentiment and factually current in time. It spoke to an issue of the day as articulated by the naturalist William Hornaday in his Smithsonian article, "The Extermination of the American Bison," that bemoaned the slaughter of a magnificent species. Remington's painting took the lament one step further, though, in addressing the cultural tragedy as well. So while his view of Indians had not changed -- they were still inveterate resisters of civilization to him -- his work also hinted at a certain depth of social understanding and empathy.

As a romantic realist, Remington fashioned art that was rooted in fact, enshrouded with the exotic, shaped by narrative, and infused with historical poignancy. His canvases, although elaborate pictorial structures, were simple, straightforward messages devoid of piety. In his journal for 1889 he entered a quote from Colonial historian Samuel Penhallow: "Let it suffice, in praise of the narrative, if facts related be true and exact, and the style be familiar, plain and easy as all historical matter should be written." [13]

Such narrative foundations can be seen in Remington's drawing of 1887, Canadian Backwoods Architecture [Fig. 36], that spoke subtly to the notion of progress and was equated by Harper's Weekly with the United States frontier. Beginning with the central motif, a decorated Blackfoot dwelling, there follows the trading post, the ranch house, and the farm buildings of succeeding stages of pioneering; the barracks of their mounted police, corresponding to those of our cavalry; and then the construction camp of railroad builders followed, if not accompanied by, the first "store" -- the "nucleus of a city and the cradle of a 'boom' in city lots." [14]

A similar suggestion of progression may be read into one of Remington's most accomplished paintings of the period, The Indian Trapper [Plate 16]. The narrative is true -- a trapper adorned with articles Remington had collected in Canada, has halted on his way up a rocky trail in the Selkirk Mountains. As Penhallow had required, the style is plain; the figure clearly dominates the scene and is presented with bold colours and clarity of drawing that reveal the artist's debt to the French academic tradition. Yet the gesture and mood are elegiac. The trapper looks back over his shoulder as if in remembrance. His spavin horse and the uphill trail leading to an unseen divide suggest a passing era.

In 1890 Remington returned to western Canada, travelling across the Dominion on the Canadian Pacific Railway, this time with his wife and a friend, the writer Julian Ralph. Remington and Ralph had collaborated on many stories and they came west with the clear intention of developing magazine articles together. One of the scenes they witnessed -- a young Indian mother selling buffalo horns to tourists at a Canadian Pacific railway station -- was compelling. Using a pose nearly identical to one of the vignettes, "Squaw & Papoose" from In the Lodges of the Blackfeet of 1887 [Fig. 29], the artist added a layer of wistful melancholy in his Selling Buffalo Horns, Canadian Pacific, c.1890. The earlier drawing had been a purely observational piece, without sentiment or editorializing, a simple portrayal of young Blackfoot motherhood. The latter work carried a message of rather pitiable cultural transformation, forced accommodation and pathos.

The Remington entourage revisited the Mounted Police headquarters at Regina. Paintings like Canadian Mounted Police [Plate 11] resulted, a colourful and summary depiction of the frontier force that Remington had rendered in a series of vignettes, Sketches of the Canadian Mounted Police in 1888. Implying a narrative, Harper's Weekly observed that it was to "that little body of hardy men" that Canada owed its "splendid record of nation building." [15] Once again progress was celebrated.

The stated purpose of Remington's 1890 trip was to witness a Blackfoot sun dance of which he produced one rather inert depiction of such a ceremony, The Ordeal in the Sun Dance Among the Blackfeet Indians [Fig. 38] later that year. In truth, however, he and Ralph arrived too late for the sun dance and Remington's illustration for Harper's Weekly was nothing more than a pictorial invention. What they did see though -- a special "pony dance," as he described it to his friend Clarke -- was an extraordinary experience. Plied with gifts of tobacco, tea and sugar, Three Bulls, the successor to Crowfoot, organized what Ralph termed a "grand spectacle." The event lasted ninety minutes as the small audience "watched the glorious riding, the splendid horses, the brilliant trappings, and the paroxysmal fervor of the excited Indians." [16] Remington must have shared, if indeed not inspired, the sentiments that his wife Eva later wrote to Clarke. "I never tired of looking at the Blackfoot Indian. I believe they are the most picturesque people in the world." [17] A depiction of the Soldier Clan Dance [Fig. 39], performing for them the day before, captures the lithe form and vital cadence of one of the dancers. 

Remington also used the opportunity of his Canadian trip to create several works related to Blackfoot history. The Romantic Adventure of Old Sun's Wife [Fig. 40] was one epic tale that Remington learned of when he painted portraits of the chief Old Sun and his wife, Onista-pitaki or Calf Eagle Old Woman, that summer. She, it turned out, was as celebrated as her husband. As a young woman, she had been abducted by an enemy warrior during a raid. Not willing to succumb to such treatment, she had snatched her captor's knife, dispatched him summarily, and ridden free on his horse. She returned home to a hero's welcome and life-long renown for her bravery. Remington, who was known to avoid women as subjects in his art and to extol, almost ad nauseum, the virtues of a Rooseveltian male-dominated world, often treated Indian women as distinctly powerful.

Extracting from the history of the Canadian fur trade and adapting Blackfoot costumes he had seen or collected, Remington also drew an image of the typical French trapper, the Courier [sic Coureur] du Bois [Fig. 42 ]. This trapper wore the fur cap Remington had recorded in his painting, A Blackfeet Indian, in 1888 [Plate 10]. As a work of art, it held compositional similarities with figures from fifth century Greek sculpture, especially elements from the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis. Remington was no doubt made familiar with such works during his studies from antique plasters as an art major at Yale. Another equally exotic figure from Remington's imaginings of the western fur trade in Canada appeared in his illustration Buffalo Meat for the Post [Fig. 41] for Ralph's history on the enterprise, "A Skin for a Skin," that appeared in the February 1892 issue of Harper's Monthly.

Probably the most celebrated historical figure Remington chose to portray from western Canada's past was Father Albert Lacombe who famously ministered to the Blackfoot. Some years before Remington visited the Bow River region, Ralph had interviewed Lacombe and Crowfoot together. The story went that the priest, who at the time was a missionary to both the Cree and the Blackfoot, had tried to turn back a Cree war party one night as it attacked the Blackfoot camp. Lacombe had at first employed peaceful persuasion but his efforts were lost in the din of gunfire. When he was wounded by a ricocheting bullet, the Blackfoot counterattacked in anger and sent the enemy fleeing. The story that the artist told, however, was much more exciting. It stated that the priest had led the Blackfoot counter-attack. "Side by side with Crowfoot, the priest fought," wrote Ralph later, and "the sight so stirred the braves behind him that the battle was easily won." [18] Remington's painting, Father Lacombe Heading the Indians [Fig. 44], shows Lacombe's initial futile attempts to halt the Cree advances with his exhortations.

Just as Remington had relished in his reacquaintance with the Mounted Police and the Blackfoot (he had written Clarke later that summer that "they are a fine outfit those Blackfeet"), he also responded artistically to the landscape. After stopping in the Calgary area, the threesome had travelled west through the Rockies to British Columbia. They stayed in Banff along the way and Remington painted Banff, Cascade Mountain [Plate 14]. Although the work is conceptually complete and resolves its various elements nicely with its dappled green and yellow foreground, the crisply lit facets of the towering peak and the brilliant, cloud-tossed sky, it was never signed. This was an exceptional work, as Remington traditionally preferred a level plain, a stage, on which his narrative dramas could unfold unobstructed.

Remington revisited western Canadian themes many times in later years, although he never returned to the region itself. For a lengthy article on "The Northwest Mounted Police of Canada," written by Canadian engineer J.G.A. Creighton in 1893, Remington provided no less than nine illustrations. Winter Costume of the Police [Fig. 43], as a pen and ink wash drawing, is a virtuoso exercise in facility of line. His skill as a draftsman had become so accomplished that he was able to render complicated textural nuances with great ease. This was one of an increasing number of military costume studies that he made during the period.

Six of his nine illustrations for the Creighton article comprised pictorial treatments of military uniforms. For Remington, the fine points of martial attire across the western world provided a consuming fascination. For him, military uniforms represented metaphorical manifestations of power. His paintings of men wearing those uniforms in action, such as Arrest of a Blackfeet Murderer [Fig. 35], portrayed the result of that manifested power.

One of the Remington illustrations for Creighton's story pictured three Mounted Policeman confronting huge odds in attaining the surrender of a Blackfoot cattle thief, Bull Elk from Crowfoot's camp [Fig. 45]. It may have served to inspire some of Charles Russell's acclaimed Mountie paintings like Single Handed.

While Remington's work often reflected lessons indirectly taken from European and fellow American artists, he had, unknown to him, a disciple of his own. That was the Montana painter Charles M. Russell. Many of Remington's illustrations and paintings presaged Russell's work in a similar vein. For example, In the Lodges of the Blackfeet [Fig. 29] of 1887 by Remington very likely inspired Russell's Western Montage, a painting of Blackfoot life that illustrated his first book, Studies of Western Life published in 1890. Likewise, Creighton's story provided an example. Within the article appeared a Remington illustration of three Mounted Policeman confronting huge odds in attaining the surrender of a Blackfoot cattle thief, Bull Elk from Crowfoot's camp. It may have served to inspire some of Russell's acclaimed Mountie paintings like Single Handed. Remington's illustration, Daring Arrest of Bull Elk -- Attempted Rescue by a Mob of Blackfeet [Fig. 45] (the original painting is now lost), shows a Sergeant Howe and two constables calling for Bull Elk's capitulation. Their resolute valor and the proclaimed virtue of their cause carried the day. Bull Elk was brought to justice. Remington's righteous law and order proclivities made such a tale a perfect narrative for an illustration.

In 1895 the artist was invited to illustrate a lengthy serial article in Harper's Monthly by the magazine editor and outdoors aficionado Caspar W. Whitney. The author was working at the time as sports editor for Harper's Weekly and had just returned from a winter expedition into the wilds north of Edmonton. Remington was asked to help sustain the narrative with a group of more spirited works. He and Whitney had been long-time friends.

Remington set the stage for the Whitney trip with an ambitious illustration, Trading in the Hudson Bay Company's "Old Store" at Edmonton [Fig. 46], an interior view picturing an array of colourful characters gathered around a wood stove. Natives, Mounted Police, mushers, and trappers peopled the scene and introduced the types of characters that would be met along the way north. The picture was reminiscent of one he had painted for Harper's Weekly after his 1887 trip to western Canada, Sketch in a Hudson Bay Company Trading Store [Fig. 47]. The figures in the 1895 work are less suggestive of caricatures, resulting from criticisms that had been levelled at Remington's interpretation of Indians as "savages" in the late 1880s.

For other works in this hefty commission, Remington very likely used photographs supplied by Whitney or others in the troop. "Sour Grapes" [Fig. 48] and "The Rabbit Camp" [Fig. 49] give the sense of having been derived from such sources. In these paintings he used a photographic perspective with the horizon line at eye level. His compositions too appear to have a snapshot quality rather than being creatively constructed.

By the time he painted his vibrant wash drawing Snow Indian, or the Northwest Type [Fig. 50], In 1897, Remington was at the top of his form as an illustrator. Snow Indian resonates with life. Here an alert Blackfoot man, cloaked in an emblematic Hudson's Bay capote and topped with as feathered fur hat, rides a spirited prancing horse across an empty picture plane.

Early in the new century, Remington expanded on the theme of the Canadian West being a natural extension of the American West. In 1902 the editors of Scribner's magazine called on him to produce four paintings in colour celebrating characteristic, romanticized figures from western frontier history. These were to be reproduced in colour in the magazines. Remington chose a cavalry soldier on night guard, a cowboy running horses out of the hills, a frontier scout astride a handsome pinto pony and a Canadian trapper which he titled The Half-Breed . His caption connected United States western history with the Canadian frontier epoch that was quickly closing. It recalled a time, less than two decade earlier, when he had first been attracted to Canada. As described by Remington in the rather harshly ethnocentric bias of his times, The Half-Breed was

One of the relics of the old fur company days -- the descendant of white employees and Indian squaws. In great numbers the half-breeds led a nomad existence on the plains of the Northwest, and at one time bid fair to become a separate and peculiar people. Our government through the army deported large bands from the then territory of Montanato Canada, and their expiring effort was the Louis Riel rebellion. The passing of the buffalo left them stranded, and their predatory habits made their suppression necessary, but they still exist, though robbed of their picturesque apparel and characteristic traits. [19]

With magazines like Scribner's and Collier's freeing Remington to paint in colour and to invent subjects that were not dependent on story lines provided by other authors, he was challenged to effect stylistic changes in his art. Critics began to recognize the new approach that Remington was excited to be taking. According to the New York Evening Mail reviewing an exhibition of Remington's recent paintings at the Noé Art Galleries in 1903.

Frederick [sic] Remington comes nearer to telling his facts of frontier life in pictorial terms, in his current exhibition at the Noé Galleries, than on any occasion of recent years...Where these new pictures gain over previous efforts is in their deliberate seeking for atmosphere His colors are correspondingly subdued and the effect is decidedly fortunate. [20]

The success of The Half-Breed and its companion works may also have motivated Remington to consider the trapper as a subject for one of his bronzes. In the summer of 1903 he copyrighted his famous sculpture, The Mountain Man [Plate 15]. He described the piece as an "old Iriquois [sic] trapper who followed the Fur Companies in the Rocky Mountains in the 30 & 40'ties." The connection with his illustrations of Canadian subjects is compelling.

Remington achieved remarkable success with his bronzes. In his lifetime he sold over 150 of his spirited Broncho Buster, first cast in 1895. His Mountain Man, over the five-year period remaining to him, went to fifteen collectors. The multiformity of his creative output -- paintings, drawings, watercolours, pastels, bronzes, not to mention his prolific writings -- was astounding. But what most set him apart from others in the field, according to a New York Times review of his 1904 Noé Art Galleries show, was thematic versatility. That Remington so enthusiastically chose Canadian subjects for his work, along with those of Mexico, Germany, Russia, and other even more distant parts of the world, manifests a muse that was as far flung as a turn of the century creative vision might be expected to reach.

By 1909, the last year of Remington's life, he had crossed another threshold of expectation. As he had hoped to do at the beginning of his career, Remington had finally achieved recognition as a painter of great versatility and merit. He had escaped the limiting parameters of illustrative art and had begun to earn acclaim as a painter's painter. His brushwork had broadened, his atmosphere softened, his colours achieved more harmony, and the elements of mood, emotional connectivity, and theme had coalesced. As a critic wrote for The Craftsman magazine early that year,

He is... achieving a manner that has been evolved out of the subjects which he paints, so that his color is more and more inevitably related to his ideas, as if Nature herself had spread his palette. He has grown to think... freely and fluently. [21]

He was credited in fact with creating a whole set of "new conditions" in American art. Those conditions included his combination of modern techniques of painting and an unabashed allegiance to narrative. "I am working for big effects" he told a reporter from the New York Herald, and those came only for him with the combination of powerful pictorial and thematic expression. [22]

Remington began and ended his career using Canadian frontier subjects. His penchant for international themes, his affection for Canada, its people and its history, and his willingness to accommodate an artistic vision that included with equal measure native and non-native cultures, gave his expression depth, breadth, and vitality that few other artists of his generation enjoyed. For Remington, western Canada was perceived as one part of a larger North American frontier experience.


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