Originally published in Points West in Spring 2013
By Peter H. Hassrick
Buffalo Bill Center of the West Director Emeritus
In early December 1909, Frederic Remington opened his last annual one-man exhibition at the galleries of M. Knoedler & Co. on Fifth Avenue in New York City. (This preceded his premature death that occurred before the month was out.) He debuted twenty-three canvases that evening, seventeen of which were large narrative portrayals of western life—themes for which he had long been famous.
To the artist’s delight, the works were praised by the critics, not just for their exotic “Out West” subjects, but also as representative of a new painterly style that would vault Remington into the highest ranks of American artists. Gustave Kobbe in the New York Herald said that these pieces assured the artist’s place as a true painter rather than an illustrator, and Royal Cortissoz in Scribner’s Magazine spoke of his matchless gifts as a painter.
Among the artworks that struck Cortissoz as he wandered the galleries was a picture of two cowboys breaking a pony in a corral. It was titled The War Bridle and commanded special attention for its spirited depiction of men taming nature in front of simple western buildings beneath a relentless summer sky. The critic acknowledged Remington’s special abilities as a delineator of horseflesh, but also found something unique in the way Remington captured the scene. “Under a burning sun,” he wrote, “[Remington] has worked out an impressionism of his own…It all makes an exhilarating spectacle…filled…with keen dry air and dazzling light. The joy of living gets into Mr. Remington’s work.” Remington was the first American painter to combine strong narrative themes with Impressionist techniques and vision.
Remington’s exhibition was a near sell out. Among the many enthusiastic buyers was a neighbor of the artist, A. Barton Hepburn (1846 –1922) who lived in New York, but maintained a house near Remington’s in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Hepburn was a noted economist, author, banker, and philanthropist who was best known locally as President of Chase National Bank. He had been associated with Remington from the artist’s youth when Hepburn had been a teacher in Remington’s upstate New York hometowns of Canton and Ogdensburg. Like Remington, Hepburn was an avid outdoorsman. He hunted in Wyoming with Pinedale photographer and rancher, Frank Alexander, and his two brothers, Charlie and Will. They operated hunting camps in the Hoback Basin and the Green River Valley. In 1906, during one of his Wyoming trips, Hepburn acquired Frank’s photograph of Charlie and Will breaking a horse, which he evidently shared with Remington to be used as a model for the painting The War Bridle.
It must have been prearranged as Hepburn attended the opening and purchased The War Bridle that first night. Perhaps it had been commissioned by Hepburn, or possibly he was simply given first right of refusal. Whatever the circumstances, the banker friend came home with a treasure. That treasure, through the generosity of Hepburn descendent Curtis Cushman, has recently been added to the rich store of Remington’s works in the Whitney Western Art Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. It is proof of the artist’s genius, the Center’s stature, the bigheartedness of patrons, and the power of art to bring out the best in people through many generations.
But mostly, it confirms the laudatory comments of a critic who was there with Hepburn at the opening that December night in 1909; he remarked, “Remington’s work is splendid in its technique, epic in its imaginative qualities, and historically important.” The Center is proud to be the repository of such artistic brilliance and the recipient of such profoundly significant largess.
I am grateful to Peggy Prine for providing information on the connection between Hepburn and the Alexander brothers, and to her mother, Ruth Alexander Bryant for permission to use the Frank Alexander photographs in this essay.