Native New Yorker Frederic Remington, in the eyes of many, has become synonymous with realistic portrayals of the Old West. “His impressive paintings, drawings and works of sculpture of the early day frontiersmen, cowboys and Indians are today well established as pictorial documentations of the most colorful and virile, as well as the most popular, chapter in American history,” wrote Western art authority Harold McCracken. Remington’s mastery of the genre and his ability to bring to life the images of the people and places that shaped the frontier is readily apparent.
‘I knew the wild riders and the vacant lands were about to vanish forever…and the more I considered the subject, the bigger the forever loomed. Without knowing how to do it, I began to record some facts around me, and the more I looked the more the panorama unfolded’
Take, for example, Remington’s Border Patrol, an oil-on-board painting on display in the Western History and Genealogy Department of the Denver Public Library. The painting, also known as Arresting Cattle Thieves, first appeared in print in the April 25, 1889, issue of The Youth’s Companion magazine, illustrating the article “Cattle Thieving in Texas.” Remington rendered it en grisaille (French for “in grayness”), a style of painting executed either entirely in or near monochrome, which made it easier for engravers to duplicate an artist’s work for print publication.
In the mid-1880s, when Remington launched his art career, an engraver had to make separate printing blocks for illustrations to accompany the blocks of text for publication. The process required the engraver to etch copies of an artist’s work. Using a small, sharp steel tool called a burin, the engraver created a mirror image of the illustration on a wood block or metal plate. A printer then rolled ink across that wood block or plate and ran it through a press to transfer the image onto paper.When an artist worked en grisaille, the engraver did not have to guess which shade of gray to translate each color via the etching process, leaving less room to misinterpret the original.
Over the course of his art career Remington defined himself and his painting style in five distinct periods. The first period he spent working as an academic fine art painter with an unabashed European style, yet his subjects and treatments made Remington stand out even in that well-worn niche. By his late 20s he was receiving praise for his depictions of rugged American frontier life.
After his productive second period as an illustrator working en grisaille, Remington entered the third phase of his career, focusing on the use of color and light in his paintings while maintaining his commitment to figure and narrative painting. At the turn of the century, with a generous contract from Colliers, he rendered a number of well-regarded masterworks in color.
In the fourth phase of his career Remington experimented with the subject matter of his paintings, turning his attention from figurative works to landscapes. The final stage, in which he experimented with symbolism to further critical acclaim, played out in the final years of his relatively short life. In 1909 Frederic Remington died at age 48 after an emergency appendectomy.
By then Remington’s exposure in magazines and books had spread his fame worldwide. The artist produced more than 3,000 signed flat works and thousands of illustrations (many en grisaille, ink wash and gouache) for reproduction in publications. The authenticity of his renderings of military scenes and frontier life rises to the forefront even when reproduced in the simplest shades of gray.