Published: November 13, 2001
NORMAN, OKLA. – “,” a major loan exhibition devoted to the two most celebrated and influential artists of the American West is on view at the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art through December 9.
Garnered from 42 public and private collections in the United States, the selection of sixty-seven works includes many of the artists’ most celebrated paintings and sculptures, such as Remington’s “Cheyenne” and “The Outlaw,” and Russell’s “A Bronc Twister” and “Counting Coup,” as well as rarely exhibited drawings, photographs, letters, and other documents.
Together these reveal how, despite striking similarities in subject matter and style, the art of Remington and Russell frequently reflects fundamentally different attitudes towards the West, its people, and its place in America’s future.
Remington, the Yale-educated Easterner, studied art with teachers trained at the prestigious French Academy in Paris, and saw the American frontier as a wild place to be tamed; for Russell, the self-taught “cowboy artist” from Montana, the West was a paradise to be preserved. Yet collectively, despite these differences, their work projected an image – still very much with us today – of the West as a place that cultivated and tested the quintessentially American virtues of self-reliance, hard work, and physical courage.
“This in-depth and thought-provoking comparison of the work of Remington and Russell is long overdue,” states Eric M. Lee, director of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. “It will stand as a landmark in the study of Western art and in our appreciation of two of its most gifted and influential exponents. This should be a fascinating exhibition for anyone interested in our ever-changing perceptions of the American West.”
Curator of the exhibition is Peter Hassrick, a leading authority on the art of Remington and Russell. Hassrick recently retired from his position as the Charles Marion Russell Professor of American Western Art and Director of the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma. Dr Lee is curator in charge of the exhibition at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. The exhibition is organized by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, Washington, D.C.
The first half of the exhibition explores in detail how the artists’ respective perceptions of the West evolved; the kinds of artistic as well as cultural influences they absorbed; their rise to fame; and public and personal reactions to their shared celebrity. The balance of the exhibition comprises thematic groupings that allow visitors to compare and contrast the artists’ portrayals of such subjects as the cowboy, Native Americans, and women.
The exhibition begins by evoking the distinct personalities of its two subjects. A photograph of Remington, circa 1902, shows a portly gentleman, nattily attired in a derby hat and posed with his cane and gloves. In obvious contrast is a 1907 photograph of Russell in a cowboy hat, his jaw firmly set and a faraway look in his eyes.
The introductory section also includes works typifying their respective artistic styles and approaches. For example, Remington’s “The Discovery” (1908), in which two riders in the prairie suddenly come upon human skeletons, illustrates his flair for theatrical scenes suggestive of danger and unseen enemies. Russell’s “The Buffalo Herd” (circa 1890), in which several generations of buffalo lumber peacefully towards a waterhole, reflects his gentler and more idyllic view of the West.
An Unwitting Rivalry
Although Remington and Russell never consciously competed, comparisons of their work were inevitable, and each artist had his own coterie of detractors and supporters.
This section focuses on the efforts by the press and the public to promote a sense of rivalry between Remington and Russell. On view is Remington’s famous bronze “Broncho Buster” (1895), criticized by Russell’s supporters as inaccurate in its portrayal of a rearing horse. Displayed alongside it is Russell’s allegedly more correct sculpture of a bucking horse, “A Bronc Twister” (1920).
East Meets West
Remington and Russell are thought to have met only once, in 1904. Yet they clearly knew and learned from each other’s work. This section explores the nature of their artistic relationship, and includes Russell’s first bronze, “Smoking Up” (1904), a figure of a cowboy shooting his gun in the air, that owes much in pose and spirit to one of the rollicking cowboys in Remington’s bronze “Coming Thru the Rye” (first cast in 1903; represented here by a posthumous cast of circa 1912-13).
Early Life in the West
As young men, both Remington and Russell went West in search of adventure and self-identity. An 1883 photograph of Remington (aged about 22), in rumpled jeans and shirt, was made during the year he spent in Kansas operating a sheep ranch; displayed nearby is the watercolor of his property, proudly inscribed “My Ranch.”
The enterprise was a failure, and he subsequently embarked on a career as an artist-correspondent with the military. Russell, on the other hand, arrived in Montana Territory in 1880, when he was only fifteen, and spent more than a decade working as a night wrangler for various cattle operations. A photograph of 1884 shows him in full cowboy regalia – a buckskin jacket, chaps, and hip holster.
Roosevelt, Remington, & Russell
Another section is devoted to a pivotal event in Remington’s rising career as an artist – the commission to illustrate the book Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, written by another Easterner with a love of the West, Theodore Roosevelt.
Published in 1888, this account of Roosevelt’s youthful experiences as a rancher in the Dakotas – replete with Indian battles, frontier town shoot-outs, and bronco busting – was enormously popular. It established Remington’s reputation as the preeminent illustrator of the American West.
Faded Dreams of the West
The exhibition makes clear both artists were keenly – and sadly – aware that they were portraying a West and a way of life that were rapidly disappearing. In Remington’s painting “An Indian Dream” (1898), he addresses this subject in a poetic and rather theatrical manner – a lone Indian rider is shown against a ghostlike backdrop of warrior braves in headdresses. Russell evokes the Old West with greater specificity, as in his bronze depiction of “Jim Bridger” (1929): The last of the legendary mountain men, Bridger had died in 1881, soon after Russell’s arrival in the West.
Taming the West
Depictions of violent encounters between man and nature also figure prominently in the work of Remington and Russell, both of whom glorified the West as a place to test one’s mettle and masculinity. But, here again, there are important differences.
Remington’s figures tend to show confidence and supremacy, as in “The Outlaw” (1906), a bronze portrayal of a man dominating a wild horse. By contrast, man’s victory over nature is often less certain in Russell’s work, as exemplified in his painting “The Broken Rope” (1904), in which a cowboy and his horse are downed by a charging steer.
Women and the West
The exhibition turns to a subject that Russell readily embraced and Remington tended to avoid – women. Russell’s numerous portrayals of domestic life, both among the white settlers and the Indians, often included women. His paintings also – and rather daringly for the time – acknowledged the existence of interracial marriages in the West, as in his “Cowboy Bargaining for an Indian Girl” (1895). The omission of women in so much of Remington’s work reflected his conviction that the West was primarily a man’s world; nonetheless, the exhibition includes a strikingly beautiful exception, a nocturnal tryst entitled “Waiting in the Moonlight” (1907).
Portraying Native Americans
A number of Russell’s paintings, such as “On the Warpath” (1895) and “Horse Thieves” (1901), illustrate his tendency to portray Indians on their own terms, with empathy and respect.
Russell was, in fact, a serious student of Indian ways and formed an especially close bond with the Piegan tribe. A vigorous, early bronze entitled “Counting Coup” (1907) shows the Piegan warrior Medicine-Whip vanquishing Sioux horse thieves.
Remington’s images of Native Americans also reflect an admiration for their physical prowess and bravery. Initially, however, he tended to portray them from a white man’s perspective. A case in point is the watercolor “Cheyenne Scout” (1890), which shows an Indian rider in military garb – a clear reference to Remington’s belief that mustering young Indian men into the US Army was an effective way to assimilate them into American life.
The horrific experiences of the Spanish-American War (1898), in which Remington served as an artist-correspondent, seem to have left him with a heightened sympathy for Indians and their imperiled way of life. “When His Heart Is Bad,” painted in 1908, a year before Remington’s own death, shows an aged Indian warrior, seated alone on a hillside, silhouetted against the setting sun.
The Cowboy, an Icon of National Identity
Up until the 1880s, the cowboy was widely decried as a morally dissolute and dangerous member of society. This section reveals how Remington and Russell both helped to transform the cowboy’s image into a heroic emblem of American manhood and, ultimately, an icon of national identity.
Remington led the way with such images as “Prairie Fire” (circa 1885), a thrilling scene of a cowboy driving a panic-stricken herd of cattle to safety. “The Rattlesnake” (bronze, 1904), in which a rider deftly controls his horse as it suddenly shies from a coiled serpent, suggests the kind of everyday perils in a cowboy’s path.
Russell also celebrated the skill and gritty courage of the cowboy, although he tended to provide more detailed accounts of actual cowboy work. In his “Capturing the Grizzly” (1901), a cowboy reins in his terrified horse with one hand and expertly throws a lasso over the snarling bear’s head with the other. Russell’s cowboy heroes could also be engagingly human and fallible, as exemplified in his bronze “Where the Best of Riders Quit” (1920), which shows a cowboy sliding down the back of a nearly vertical rearing horse.
Ethnic Diversity in Remington’s and Russell’s Art
Native Americans were not the only non-whites in the West, and Remington and Russell were unusual in the degree to which they included other ethnic types in their frontier scenes. Indeed, Remington was the only prominent Western artist to celebrate the important role African Americans played in the military efforts on the frontier.
This section features two notable examples, “Captain Dodge’s Colored Troopers to the Rescue” (circa 1890) and “The Advance” (1896-98). Unlike many other contemporary artists, Remington and Russell also included the Hispanic cowboy in their works. In Russell’s painting “Mexican Buffalo Hunters” (1924), his admiration for the brilliantly colored attire and graceful horsemanship of the vaqueros is apparent. (He once remarked that, next to Mexican cowboys, the Anglo cowpunchers “look like hay diggers.”)
Curiously, neither artist painted Black cowboys, despite the fact that an estimated one-third of all cowboys were African American.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, written by Hassrick and published by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions.
“” completes its national tour at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. It was previously seen at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; the Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, Fla.; the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum; and the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, Santa Ana, Calif.
Founded in 1936, the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art houses a collection of approximately 6,500 objects, ranging from old master to modern and contemporary art.
Last year, the collection was greatly enhanced by the bequest of the Clara and Aaron Max Weitzenhoffer Collection, an important group of 33 French Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings and works on paper that makes the museum one of the preeminent repositories of Impressionist art in the Great Plains States.
In addition, in 1996 the museum acquired a significant collection of works by artists of the Taos colony. Holdings in American art also include works by Romare Bearden, Albert Bierstadt, Stuart Davis, Sam Francis, Adolph Gottlieb, Edward Hopper, John Marin, Thomas Moran, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Maurice Prendergast, as well as important collections of photographs and Native American art.
The Charles M. Russell Center was established in 1998 at the University of Oklahoma School of Art, along with an endowed position in art history, the Charles Marion Russell Chair. Both were made possible through the generosity of the Nancy Russell Trust, with matching funds from the state of Oklahoma.
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