Thursday, October 4, 2007

Painting the Myth

At the end of the 1962 Western movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, a journalist cynically says, "If you are forced to print the truth or the myth, you always print the myth." Frederick Remington, born on this date in 1861, helped paint the myth of the American West like no other. Although he was born and lived most of his life in New York, Remington spent just enough time in the West to gather enough material to spin his mythic world of Native Americans and Cowboys. “Cowboys are my cash,” Remington once said. Remington cashed in on the myth he created, becoming the most financially successful artist of his time, spreading out from illustration and painting to even sculpture in his exploration of the legendary American West that was disappearing at the same time he was capturing it for the public. In works such as The Cigarette (above, from 1908), Remington created an image of the Cowboy as a romantic figure living a chivalric code of the land, appealing to the young American nation in need of a mythic, heroic past.

To modern eyes, it sometimes seems hard to believe how popular and how powerful the image of the West became. In improbable scenes such as Buffalo Hunter Spitting a Bullet into a Gun (above, from 1892), Remington almost dares the viewer not to believe that a man on a speeding horse can somehow spit a bullet down the barrel of a rifle. Of course, the American public quite willingly suspended their disbelief, swallowing whatever Remington spit out, and continues to even today as the idea of the American West lives on powerfully in movies. The Italian Spaghetti Westerns genre speaks of the power of that myth to spread to even Europe as the defining image of what America is about.

Media mogul William Randolph Hearst recognized Remington’s power over the public and enlisted him to illustrate the Spanish-American War and Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders’ exploits in Cuba. Upon landing in Havana, the anxious Remington cabled to Hearst: “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst replied: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Hearst soon got his war and his pictures, including Remington’s painting of The Charge of the Rough Riders, with T.R. at the center leading his men, two dead Spanish scouts off to the left, and a man beside T.R. dramatically reacting to just being shot. Remington remorselessly presents all the heroism of war, cashing in on another myth. When Roosevelt and the Rough Riders parted ways, the men gave their leader a series of gifts, one of which was a copy of Remington’s sculpture The Bronco Buster (above). Roosevelt carried that sculpture all the way to the White House a few years later, forever uniting Remington’s myth of the Cowboy with “cowboy diplomacy” on a presidential level, something we’re saddled with even today.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Although uncommon to spit a bullet into a barrel, there are written accounts of it being done. However, the rifle but was slammed onto the ground to seat the bullet. Plains rifles had rather thick wrists to prevent being broken by rough usage.