Originally featured in Points West magazine in Winter 2008
By Dr. Henry Sayre
“I sometimes feel,” Frederic Remington once said, “that I am trying to do the impossible in my pictures in not having a chance to work direct, but as there are no people such as I paint, it’s the ‘studio’ or nothing.” He was speaking of his depictions of a not-so-long-lost West—its shoot-’em-up cowboys, marauding Indians, and buckin’ broncos—for which I’ve always liked Remington.
I’ve identified with him since I was in the first grade. I was visiting my cousins on Long Island, one of whom was studying Colorado in school. I was from Colorado, and so I was invited to speak to her class. I’ll never forget it. The first question I was asked was “What is it like to ride a horse to school?” I said, “I walked to school.” Then someone said, “Have you ever been bitten by a rattlesnake?” And I said, “no.” And then—I’m not making this up—someone asked, “Do you carry a gun to fight the Indians?” I couldn’t help myself. I said, “yes.”
Remington might have said the same thing. But he knew better, like I did. He was in tune with his times, and he did work “direct.” This painting ranks among the great examples of American Impressionism. The looseness of this painting’s gesture—its sensitivity to the play of light, the contrast between the vertical strokes that define the snow-covered rock in mid-stream, and the almost wild energy of the black bush directly above it—all define a painter so attuned to paint as medium, to be appreciated in its own right above and beyond whatever it depicts, that Remington might better be seen, not as an illustrator capturing the end of an era, but as a full-blown modern painter.
Frederic Remington (1861 – 1909). Untitled (Impressionistic winter scene of streams, rocks and trees), n.d. Oil on board, 12 x 18 inches. Gift of The Coe Foundation. 75.67
Ed. note: This “treasure” was written by guest essayist Dr. Henry Sayre, Distinguished Professor of Art History at Oregon State University-Cascades in Corvallis, Oregon. Sayre’s essay highlights one of fifty artworks featured in the book, Timeless Treasures, a collection of Whitney Western Art Museum favorites published in conjunction with the Whitney’s reinstallation in 2009.