Today, a fable of innocence and experience. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I finished high school in
the Western logging town of Roseburg, Oregon. A
couple of the older boys had summer jobs with the
movies. They'd fall off horses for $5.00 a take.
Next best to movies was riding in the rodeo. But
the movement of Western horse and rider touched us
all. We shared a deep-rooted vision of motion,
masculinity, and rough-hewn grace.
No one did more to shape that shared vision than
Frederic Remington. His sketches, paintings and
wild kinetic bronzes still defined the West we knew
in the late '40s. By now John Ford was building
Remington tableaux into his Western movies. He
openly copied Remington's composition and palette
to gain realism.
Remington grew up on a diet of military glory. His
father became a Civil War hero when he engaged his
men in a foolish action that got most of them
killed. Remington was 15 when Custer lay hold on
the American imagination with his fiasco. In 1881,
young Remington went West to find that kind of
glory for himself.
He set out to be an artist and journalist. He
learned his trade quickly. Then he went back to New
York. He worked from sketches, photos and memory to
create his West in oil and bronze.
He made more trips, of course. He chased after war.
He hungered to see battle first hand. Meanwhile, he
showed us action -- always right at the point of
impact. A rider being thrown from his horse -- an
Indian spear about to impale a pioneer.
Remington reflected all the racism and imperialism
that was America in 1900. Yet his naivete saved
him. He just missed the slaughter at Wounded Knee.
He just missed other combat. He didn't find his
live battle until the Spanish-American War.
What he finally saw in Cuba made him reel in
horror. Stripped and mangled corpses stacked up
while guns made quiet popping sounds in the near
distance. There was no glory here.
It took Cuba to bring Remington to introspection.
Not long before his death at only 48, his exhibits
finally drew the critical praise he'd always craved
but never had. He produced a series of quiet
nocturnes -- night
scenes of a gentler West.
But his action-packed West still defines the
American sense of self. It's the Platonic ideal of
a West that never quite was. Remington's West was
born of naivete. It was a West that more objective
eyes wouldn't've seen. A wise man once said,
"Love is blind; and being blind sees less; and seeing less sees more."
Remington's blind side let him show us a West that
was good and true, when the real West was morally
flawed. Remington's naivete led him past the
obvious folly, greed, and cruelty -- and let him
show us the beauty of our dreams.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Jussim, E., Frederic Remington, the Camera
& the Old West. Fort Worth: Amon Carter
Splete, A.P. and Splete, M.D., Frederic
Remington -- Selected Letters. New York:
Abbeville Press, 1988.
Vorpahl, B.M., Frederic Remington and the
West. Austin: The University of Texas Press,
For an astonishing array of sketches by 26 year old
Remington, click on the picture gallery that
follows Episode 1401.
For Remington statues, see: http://www.westernsaddle.com/wesscul.html
For more biography of Remington, see:
For another of Remington's nocturnes click on
The Herd Boypainted around 1905.
(the Museum of Fine Art, Houston)
A short gallery of early Remington images
of an Army encounter with Indians.
(Sumner, E. V., Besieged by the Utes.
Century, October, 1891, pp. 837-847.
To see the full size image, click on
the thumbnail above.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.