The Elements of Western Art

by Peter Hassrick



The Cowboy as Symbol of an Era's Demise


Bierstadt's switch to allegorical narrative interpretations of western life was heartily adopted by the next generation of western artists, a group of painters and sculptors who would carry the traditions into the twentieth century. Probably the most popular artist of this fourth phase of western art was Frederic Remington, who knew from the beginning of his career that the scene he set out to depict was, like the bison, quickly disappearing. As a consequence, much of his work is epic in scale and fatalistic in temper. The Last Lull in the Fight (figure 104), painted the same year as Bierstadt's Last of the Buffalo, won international acclaim for the young Remington, garnering a silver medal at the 1889 Paris Exposition.

Like Bierstadt's piece, Remington's symbolized the close of the western epoch. Where Samuel Seymour's early views of the Rocky Mountains had invited the viewer to enter the scene and take advantage of the limitless expanse and promise, Remington's depictions some seventy years later are broadly unwelcoming. Gone is the promise. Only a hint of Darwin's survival of the fittest remains to suggest that some element, if sufficiently tough, will persevere. Similar later portrayals of the subject, such as Rounded Up by God (figure 105) by Remington's contemporary Henry Farny, depict the Anglo-American vanquisher as victim. The garden has disappeared. The cowboy is left fighting for empty desert, a land just as foreboding as his phantom adversaries, the Indians.

This final saga in the historic western epoch centered on the life of the cowboy, glorifying his relatively short episodic career in much the same way that earlier artists such as Alfred Jacob Miller had revered the life of the mountain man. The cowboy ultimately assumed the prescribed attributes of that earlier folk hero. Ostensibly self-reliant, free spirited, and hard working, he was richly imbued with romantic aura. His was a world removed from social restraint, an exotic grassland stage on which he acted out chivalric adventures or man-to-man contests of strength and will, at least as depicted by Remington.

Remington's precise delineation of detail -- often accurately portrayed, sometimes not -- evinced a style well suited to his cowboy art. While on assignment for magazines such as Harper's and Century, Remington, an active artist-correspondent, enjoyed participating in the scenes that he pictured or at least observing them firsthand, and he traveled widely to expose himself to the waning frontier ambiance. His images, most conceived as illustrations for popular journals of the day, were published in such profusion that, in reality, he as much shaped the West in the public mind as recorded it.

In the last years of his life, Remington turned toward impressionist and postimpressionist idioms as a form of expressing his vision of western life. Ghosts of the Past (figure 108), with its soft contours and resplendent but harmonious light, is an example of his late efforts in the impressionist mood. Little changed from his earlier paintings was the subject: resolute cowboys riding the high plains.

Another artist who has been lauded and widely appreciated for his pictorial interpretations of the Indian and the cowboy is Charles M. Russell. Like Remington, Russell imbued his work with a hint of fatalism but was generally more philosophical, regarding the past, including the history of the West, as fundamentally redemptive. While Remington, as an artist-correspondent, celebrated the importance of the present, Russell believed that the past, as morally superior, might redeem the actions of the present. Eschewing progress, he championed the Indian as the hero of an innocent past time. His heavily symbolic painting His Heart Sleeps (figure 2) suggests the pathos of the declining Indian cultures but commensurately commends the powers of nature to heal and endure despite the ravages of time. Although Russell's style underwent several transformations before his death in 1926, his interpretations of western scenes and life changed little.

Russell's contemporaries Alexander Phimister Proctor and William Robinson Leigh tended to revere the same bygone themes that portrayed the Indians as a grand but vanished race. Although Leigh's painting Lullaby (figure 85) speaks to the continuity of traditions and future generations of Native Americans, it is also tinged with an aura of remembrance and nostalgia. A sense of loss seems to prevail.


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