The banks of the Schuylkill were packed with onlookers. On a craggy outcropping overlooking a clearing by the river stood Frederic Remington’s new, larger-than-life bronze statue wrapped in American flags. Soon enough, the cord would be ceremoniously pulled to reveal the city’s latest equestrian monument: “The Cow-Boy.”
Five thousand spectators turned out for the dedication. A band of cowboys (the musical variety) warmed up the crowd. Wyoming Jack, “a noted scout” and Chief He-Dog, in full regalia, did the honors. The popular cowgirls Mida and Lida Kemp were there. Mounted Sioux: Yellow Cloud, Cheering Horse and Driving Bear looked on as their families stood with VIP Philadelphia: leadership of the Fairmount Park Commission, the Fairmount Park Art Association (which had commissioned the piece) and others. A stand-in for Mayor John E. Reyburn apologized for His Honor’s absence. June 20, 1908 was a big day for dedications. The mayor had gone out to Valley Forge for the unveiling of another equestrian in bronze: Anthony Wayne.
The fictional “Cow-Boy” attracted a larger crowd than the real Revolutionary War hero.
One would have expected to see there that day the Philadelphian most responsible for the cowboy legend. More than anything else, Owen Wister’s best-selling novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, published six years earlier, had forged the cowboy in the popular imagination. Lauded as “one of the great triumphs of American literature,” The New York Times claimed Wister had “come pretty near to writing the American novel.” The Virginian was reprinted sixteen times; two million hardbound copies found their way into readers’ hands. There would be five film versions and, in the 1960s, a long-playing television series.
“It is safe to say,” writes historian John Jennings, “that Wister launched the foremost popular mythology in American history.” And he did so by animating the cowboy with words as much as Remington did with images and figures. From the stormy evening in Yellowstone National Park where they first met in 1893, Wister and Remington together crafted and popularized this American character, the appeal of which, Jennings points out, “stood in stark contrast to the vulgar excesses of the Gilded Age.” But in 1899, Wister and Remington had a falling out. And so, that Saturday on the banks of the Schuylkill, Remington alone stood as the cowboy’s creator.
In fact, credit was due to the trio of Remington, Wister and Wister’s Harvard classmate and lifelong friend, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1888 Roosevelt admired the Dakota cowboy’s “quiet, uncomplaining fortitude.” He found the cowboy brave, “hospitable, hardy, adventurous” and “the grim pioneer of our race, [possessing] to a very high degree, the stern, manly qualities that are necessary to a nation.” This ready-made romantic figure was capable of reassuring some Americans “that the simple, honest virtues of Jeffersonian America were not lost.” With the cowboy, Remington, Wister and Roosevelt (now as the U.S. President who brought Remington’s Bronco Buster in the Oval Office) “manufactured a myth” of this, the “most popular American folk hero.”
The cowboy hadn’t always been the object of such unbridled admiration. Before Wister’s Virginian, this frontier type was more of “a rough, violent, one-dimensional drifter” familiar at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Remington identified something more, something special, in an article titled “The Texas Cowboy” published in 1892:
The cowboy is strongly unimaginative, absolutely unconventional, and his character is as tough as his life, made hard and narrow by combat with appalling dangers, great vicissitudes, and an absence of ideas at variance with his own. He shows in his method of verbal expression that he has succumbed to his environment, for he thinks horse, talks horse, and dreams horse, and awakens to find himself, with some meat and bread and a quart of coffee under his belt, sitting on a horse. … The cowboy’s life is passed alone, with only his pony and the great stretch of solemn plains and the flat, blue sky. He has little use for his voice, though his thoughts may wander as far afield as any poet’s. . . . You will find in his gaze a positive quality . . . for no English high-caste man ever regarded the rest of the world from so high a pinnacle as this tanned and dusty person who sleeps in a blanket and eats bacon three times a day.
Remington and Wister met the next year and soon elevated the cowboy a few notches higher, while revealing distinct biases along the way, in an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. In the American West, wrote Wister, one could avoid the “hordes of encroaching alien vermin, that turn our cities to Babels and our citizenship to a hybrid farce.” He went on: “it won’t be a century before the West is simply the true America with thought, type, and life of its own kind. We Atlantic Coast people, all varnished with Europe, and some of us having a good lot of Europe in our marrow besides, will vanish from the face of the earth.” Accompanying this essay, titled the “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher,” were five illustrations by Remington, including, most notably, “The Last Cavalier,” depicting a cowboy on horseback “with a host of Anglo-Saxon knights, crusaders, cavaliers, frontiersmen, explorers, and soldiers of the Raj receding into the misty past.”
Why not introduce this larger-than-life American hero to the public in the form of a larger-than-life monument? “The fast disappearing Indians and western cowboy should be put in enduring bronze,” encouraged New York art editor Alexander W. Drake in a letter to Remington in 1899, “. . . this should be done by the only man in America who can do it,” he flattered. “What could be more appropriate for an American city?”
The Fairmount Park Art Association agreed. And so would The Philadelphia Inquirer, which described Remington as “the most truly American,” artist who “owed nothing of his craftsmanship to foreign study or to copying foreign ideas. He was a product of our own soil, educated in an American atmosphere.” Remington produced sculptures “with such fidelity to life that they will remain long after the last cow-puncher has gone to his grave.”
Many other cities wanted larger-than-life cowboys by Remington. Only Philadelphia would get one. A year and a half after the 1908 dedication, Remington died of complications from appendicitis. The Corcoran Gallery in Washington would be the first of many museums to purchase one of his bronzes (Off the Range, also known as Coming Through the Rye) but table-top sculptures, however spirited, just didn’t have the presence or the unexpected gravitas of this 12-foot “Cow-Boy” monument overlooking the Schuylkill.
[Sources: Frederic Remington, “The Texas Cowboy,” The Denver Republican, Sept 1892 (Published in Current Literature, Vol 11, September-December, 1892); Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (New York: The Macmillan Company,1902); “Cowboy Statue to be Unveiled,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 19, 1908; “Picturesque Scenes Attend Unveiling of the Cowboy Monument in the Park,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 1908; Fairmount Park Art Association, Annual Report (Philadelphia: Fairmount Park Art Association, 1909);, “A Genuine American Artist, The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 28, 1909; David Sellin, “Cowboy,” in Fairmount Park Art Association, Sculpture of a City: Philadelphia’s Treasures in Bronze and Stone,” (Walker Pub. Co, 1974); David A. Smith, “Owen Wister’s Paladin of the Plains: The Virginian as Cultural Hero,” South Dakota History, 2008, vol. 38, no. 1, pp 47-77; John Jennings, The Cowboy Legend Owen Wister’s Virginian and the Canadian-American Frontier (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2012).]
Disclosure: The writer is a member of The Association for Public Art (formerly The Fairmount Park Art Association) board of directors.
4 replies on “Philadelphia’s “Cow-Boy” Monument”
The last photo is most likely not from 1910.
I always enjoy your posts. But since reading John Russell’s 1989 New York Times review of a Remington show at the Met, I have never been able to look at that statue without remembering the racism and misogyny that lies under the surface of Remington’s art. Here’s the review:
Even when every allowance is made for institutional schizophrenia, there is still something disconcerting about the present look of the main entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Where the name of Degas not so long ago hung down in majesty, the banner now bears the name of Frederic Remington.
Between those two, there is no common denominator, any more than there is one between the banner marked ”Remington” and the banner marked ”Painting in Renaissance Siena.” Remington has traditionally been regarded as a popular favorite whose work is of no esthetic interest whatever. He is associated, moreover, with a macho, pre-Freudian and blatantly racist conception of American manhood. Add to that a vicarious delight in man-to-man combat of a kind that already in his lifetime had mercifully become almost extinct. Shooting and scalping were the things that most excited him in life. Why should he have his banner outside the Met?
Even the organizers of the show -Michael Edward Shapiro, a longtime student of Remington’s sculptures, and Peter H. Hassrick, the author of more than one book on Remington’s paintings – admit that ”Remington, long a popular favorite, has remained what we must call a critical failure.” But it is their belief that thanks to ”a revisionist spirit in the scholarship of American art, coincidental with changing tastes in American cultural institutions,” Remington may shortly be riding as high as any of his cowboys.
In line with that belief, ”Frederic Remington: The Masterworks” is the full title of the show that opens to the public tomorrow at the Met. The lengthy catalogue radiates the conviction that Frederic Remington was ”a great American master” and ”one of the best artists that America has produced.” Other admirers of Remington’s work have not hesitated to rank him with John La Farge and Fitz Hugh Lane, who gave a new dignity to the concept of a truly American art.
The presentation of the show hews to that notion. Spread over several large galleries, with paintings and sculptures luxuriously spaced, it gives Remington the fairest possible shake. It even includes an auxiliary exhibition that sets out to teach us how to tell an authentic Remington sculpture – one that was cast in his lifetime and presumably under his supervision – from one of the innumerable replicas and near-travesties that were made after his death. At the end of our tour, there is the kind of promotional apparatus – reproductions and posters, framed and unframed, with a king-size cash register primed for action – that is associated at the Met with foregone and large-scale success.
One or two paintings in the show speak well for Remington. In ”The Scout: Friends or Enemies?,” the solitary horseman profiled against an infinite horizon is the very image of uneasy awareness. ”Evening on a Canadian Lake” – painted in 1905, not long before his death – might be called the flagship of Remington revisionism, so wonderfully does it present the calm, slow, purposeful movement of a canoe across the unruffled lake. Not only do we believe in that smooth and silent progress, but we recognize the canoe itself as one built by Remington’s friend, J. Henry Rushton, still spoken of as the Stradivarius of canoe builders. And Remington’s late moonlight scenes are effective enough, until we notice how much is owed to the formulaic alternation of just two evocative colors.
A late painting like ”Pete’s Shanty, Ingleneuk” (1908) has a flickering lightness of touch and a truth to immediate impression that are completely persuasive. Among his sculptures, ”The Cheyenne” of 1901 has in its original form a certain nervous distinction, though we may think that Remington went rather far when he said that thanks to work of that kind he was ”going to rattle down through all the ages.”
Yet it has to be said that by the end of the show we are left with a sensation of energies lowered and dispersed (or perhaps never there at all). We also have a pervasive sense of fraudulence. These are the paintings of a man who was playing at life and playing at art. Even where he had ”been there,” more or less, as was the case with the two scenes from the Spanish-American conflict in Cuba that he painted in 1898, there is something hopelessly labored and inert, secondhand and second rate, about the scenes of heroic energy on which much of his reputation was based.
The paintings in question are called ”Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill” and ”Scream of Shrapnel at San Juan Hill, Cuba.” The ”Scream of Shrapnel” may well be the most inadequate rendering of warfare ever set before a gullible public, so limp, stilted and unconvincing is the image. There is an inexcusable obscenity about the insult to men in danger that is implied in paintings such as these.
It is an article of faith with Remington’s supporters that he should be ranked in military matters with J. B. E. Detaille, J. L. E. Meissonier and Alphonse-Marie de Neuville. three French masters of the genre whose skills were honed at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, when Remington was going on 10 years old. But this idea has to be discarded once we remember the tragic finality that Meissonier could give to the ruins of Paris after the Commune and the psychological understanding of every figure (whether enemy, friend or something in between) that Detaille could display in even the most elaborate composition. Remington in such company looks what he was – a spurious outsider, possessed by hatreds that skewed his whole vision and secret velleities that he dared not admit.
He was equally out of his class when compared, as he was at one time, with the Russian painter Vasily Vereshchagin, whose work was shown in New York in the winter of 1888-89. Vereshchagin was a highly skilled painter-reporter who had excelled especially at the time of the Russo-Turkish War. But, unlike Remington, he did not paint faked-up scenes of carnage that are about as convincing as a school-pageant version of Gettysburg. The painting for which he is best remembered is an image unique to himself – a mountain of human skulls, over which big black birds wheel back and forth.
It might not matter, but in this case it does, that Frederic Remington as a man was just awful. There was about him a quality that was almost unfailingly ignoble. ”I don’t understand them, I can’t paint them” is all that he had to say about women. (There are paintings – never yet seen in public – in which the thought of American Indian women inspired in him a certain sneaky indecency.) He dreamed of killing off the European immigrants who threatened to defile the racial purity of what he regarded as the only true Americans. (”I’ve got some Winchesters,” he once wrote to a male friend. ”When the massacring begins . . . I can get my share of ’em and what’s more I will. Jews – injuns – Chinamen -Italians – Huns, the rubbish of the earth. . . .”) This was the bloated lout who would come scratching at the flap of a neighbor’s tent before dawn and ask for a glass of whisky and a cigarette. This was the man who encouraged others to say that he had worked as a cowpuncher and seen action with the United States Army when in actual fact, as the Met catalogue allows, the only action he had seen was on the football field at Yale.
This was the keen student of military matters who wrote to the novelist Owen Wister about the likelihood of American intervention in the Cuban war of independence against Spain and said, ”Say old man there is bound to be a lovely scrap around Havana – a big murdering – sure.” Off he went to Cuba, but when he got there he came too close to an enemy cannon ball. Imagine the indignity! It was days before he got the sand out of his hair.
None of this would matter, in the end, if Remington had been a great genius, like Richard Wagner, who happened to hold one or two horrible opinions. Nor would it have mattered if, like the novelist Louis Ferdinand Celine, he had held wicked opinions but left us a record of his time that had the apocalyptic quality of Celine’s account of Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s. If these things matter, in Remington’s case, it is because he was, in human terms, just a poor blown-up barrel of nothing. How can we be asked to admire someone who not only painted despicable pictures, but also said to a friend: ”Never will be able to sell a picture to a Jew again, did sell one once. You can’t glorify a Jew . . . nasty humans.”
Nasty humans? Who’s talking? I can’t wait for that banner to come down.
Thank you. And thanks for sharing that review from the New York Times.