"The West's Best"

by Peter MacMillan Booth






Near the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, a new era of Western Art stressed the need to authentically tell the human drama of the America's frontier experience. At the Paris Exposition of 1888, a painting by a young upstart artist named Frederic Remington won a silver medal, while the entry from the reigning Western master, Albert Bierstadt, was not even accepted. This marked the passing of Western Art from the Period of Romance into a new era. While the explorer artists recorded the landscape and the romantic artists aggrandized its beauty that dwarfed humanity, this new breed who have been called Narrative Relativists or Western Storytelling Artists sought to capture the frontier's saga. Many of these individuals began as illustrators for Eastern periodicals like Harper's, Collier's, Outing Magazine, and Century Magazine. With the passing of the frontier, these artists became self-designated historians, dedicated to preserving the West's heroic memory. They spun a highly dramatic tale of masculine virtue and strength. Leaders in this era of Western
Art, such as Frederic Remington, Charles Russell and Charles Schreyvogel, portrayed what they saw as the heroic struggle of the American frontiersmen. The individuals in the paintings and sculptures -- whether they are trappers, calvarymen, cowboys, or Native Peoples -- are self-reliant, free-spirited, hard-working, and removed from social restraints. They embody toughness, strength, and cunning while living the "Code of the West" with its ideals of fair play, courage, and camaraderie. The brave soldier and the resolute cowboy are portrayed as the last cavaliers acting out a heroic adventure with a backdrop of unsurpassed and unspoiled beauty. The United States publicly embraced these images with a national pride that is still evident today.


Key Artists

Frcderic Remington

(Born: Canton, New York, 1861 - Ridgefield, Connecticut, 1909)

Of all Western Storyteller artists, Frederic Remington probably most embodied this generation of artists. In addition, his work significantly shaped how America viewed the West, setting the standard of Western Art for decades to come. Remington craved the glory that the Civil War generation before him experienced. This inspired him to leave Yale art school and travel West, the region that offered the most excitement at the time. After a short time as a Kansas sheepherder, he opened a Kansas City saloon (also known as a "Bucket shop"). After this failed, he turned back to art and started doing sketches for Eastern journals. He soon became a war correspondent, following General Nelson Miles (whom he idolized as the ultimate soldier) both during his campaign against Geronimo and in South Dakota. As the West passed, Remington saw his job more as a social historian, painting images of Western characters. The Vaquero along with the bronze sculptures such as Mountain Man reflects characters Remington saw as part of the Western frontier story. Remington was also known for his epic dramas. DCWM displays two examples of this -- Rattlesnake and Bronco Buster. It has been commented that he never depicted any "teacup tragedies." In all his work, Remington saw the cowboy and the soldier as the epitome of manhood, the heroic warrior carrying the American society into a harsh but rich land. His narrative pieces told "the tale of [the American] tribe," the knight-errant of the New World. (left: Frederic Remington, Bronco Buster, Remington Permanent Collection, Desert Caballeros Western Museum)

In his generation, Remington was recognized as the top Western illustrator. This title, though, rankled him. He very much wanted respect as an artist instead of an illustrator. In one incident, he burned several of his latest illustrative works that had been commissioned by Collier's. To prove his artistic abilities, Remington started experimenting more and more in Impressionism. As his style changed, he focused less on the West and more on Eastern natural scenes. Whether he would have returned to the West is unknown for Remington suffered an acute appendicitis attack in 1909. At the age of 48, the remarkable artist who produced over 2,750 paintings died as doctors frantically cut into him in a vain attempt to save Remington's life.


Charles Russell

(Born: Oak Hill, Missouri, 1864 - Died: Great Falls, Montana, 1926)

The other pinnacle of the Era of Western Storytellers, Charles Russell, can be called a true Cowboy artist. An authentic Westerner, Russell descended from the famous frontier traders, the Bent brothers, who establish a trading fort along the Santa Fe Trail in what is now southeast Colorado. Russell himself was raised in St. Louis, the gateway to the West. At age 16 he traveled to Montana and worked as prospector, hunter, cattle puncher, and even lived with the Blackfoot Indians for a short time.

Russell started painting and sculpting as a storytelling method. He was known to enter a saloon, take out a ball of wax and shape it into the central actor or animal of the yarn he was spinning. His art became a visual folk tale relating to the adventures he and his friends experienced. DCWM's collection of small Russell sculptures certainly reflects this storytelling characteristic.

Russell truly bemoaned the passing of the West as he knew it. He dreaded the changes progress brought to the West. He regretted the loss of values that the frontier brought out in humanity. He in turn looked for redemption in the past. Reflecting this nostalgia, he adopted the skull of the buffalo as his trademark.

In addition to cowboys, Charles Russell had an equal affinity for Native Peoples, another image of the disappearing West. His more positive view of Indians set his work apart from such contemporaries as Remington who showed natives as the enemy to be defeated. While Remington glorified the soldier, Russell looked to the Indian as the hero, often putting him center stage, as is evident in DCWM's example of his work, Navajos. Russell once commented "I'm all Injun but my hide; their God's my God n' I don't ask for no better." This painting has its own story. Russell only came to the Southwest once.While there, he traveled through the Navajo Reservation. One morning, a party of Diné rode past his camp without giving his group any notice. That scene was reproduced in the painting now hanging in the DCWM gallery.


Earle Heikka


One of the most talented and tragic of the Narrative Realists was Earle Heikka. Growing up in Great Falls, Montana, he was directly influenced by Charles Russell. During Heikka's early school years, he developed a stuttering speech impediment. This handicap, coupled with dire poverty, contributed to poor school attendance. However, his interest and ability in clay modeling broadened, and, though he grew up watching Russell paint and sculpt, Heikka is considered to he self-taught. By the time he was 18, his models of clay, papicr-mâché, plaster, wood, leather and cloth were receiving critical acclaim. Most of his work featured pack trains, stagecoaches, and cowboys and Indians in action. He also worked as a taxidermist and constructed dioramas. His finances improved as his work began to sell, and in 1929 he sculpted cowboys at the Gary Cooper Ranch. Unfortunately, though, his life soon ended at the age of 31. It is claimed that he killed himself with a bullet, however some researchers believe the shooting could have been accidental. Very few of his original sculptures had been cast in bronze at the time of his death. It was 35 years before his work was again appreciated.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. [rev. 5/9/12]

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