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The closing of the frontier and The Fall of the Cowboy

Remington mourns the decline of the cowboy by depicting the very thing that destroyed his iconic lifestyle. See learning resources here.

Frederic Remington, The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895, oil on canvas, 24 x 35 1/8 inches (Amon Carter Museum of American Art), a Seeing America video Speakers: Sara Klein, Teacher and School Programs Manager, Amon Carter Museum of American Art and Steven Zucker.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art looking at a Frederic Remington from 1895. This is the fall of the cowboy, and this painting was created to accompany an essay that was to appear in the most popular magazine in the United States at this time, Harper's Monthly. - [Sara] In Evolution of the Cow-Puncher, author Owen Wister details the rise and fall of the legendary cowboy in the American West, and the painting that we're looking at here is the final illustration in the article that symbolizes the end of the cowboys' way of life. - [Steven] The cowboy had existed as this mythic figure for over three decades; these were men who drove huge numbers of cattle across fertile fields to railheads in the East where they could be transported to the slaughterhouses in Chicago, and then, that meat could be brought to the East. - [Sara] So with the advent of barbed wire, the expansion of the transcontinental railroads, and the privatization of public grazing lands, all three of these factors lead to the demise of the cowboy in the American West. And what we're looking at here is two cowboys, one mounted and one off of his horse, who are tending to, or opening, the very thing that helped put them out of business so to speak. So they're opening a a gate made up of barbed wire fencing that divides the painting in half and goes as far as the eye can see. - [Steven] Barbed wired had only been invented a few decades earlier, but had already divided and structured what had been the open landscape of the American West, which had such a powerful mythic and visual appeal. - [Sara] These two cowboys, dressed in typical cowboy gear, they have chaps and cowboy hats, they're wearing gloves, and their horses have their winter coats; these are not groomed horses. - [Steven] So this is a melancholic painting. It's colors are so somber and it's broad horizontals, the horizontal of the landscape, the heavy leaden quality of the overcast sky and that wonderful reflective quality of the snow even on this dim day, all gives the sense of quiet, of the end of the day, at the end of the season, perhaps, but also of the end of an era. - [Sara] The palette is very somber, almost monochromatic. The fact that we are looking at a landscape that is covered in snow, oftentimes, we think about winter symbolizing the ending or death and dying. - [Steven] And all of the figures are still. It's as if there's no wind and almost no sound, and this is in such stark contrast to the way in which we think of this artist's usual work, which could be cowboy's fleeing a group of attacking Indians or some other action scene or hunting scene full of movement, but here, everything has been brought down to this single quiet moment. - [Sara] The only hint of movement that I can see is the white horse's wisp of a tail, flailing out very delicately. - [Steven] The folds of that thick pant leg, the heaviness of the chaps and their fringe, the worn quality of the hat. There's clearly a love of materiality of the life of the cowboy. - [Sara] The footprints in the snow seem to be mere paint smudges, but they convey that these cowboys have, in fact, traveled a long way, and we can see the evidence of their travels. - [Steven] Clearly Remington new his cowboys, he new their equipment, he new this environment, but he was not from the West. He was born in New York state and he exhibited at the National Academy in New York; he was very much an Easterner, and an artist who was painting for an Eastern audience. - [Sara] So what was really important to Frederic Remington's process were his travels westward. What he would do is observe cowboys and their horses in action, make a great number of sketches, and also purchase objects related to the cowboy life and horse culture, and bring the sketches and these objects back to his New York studio to create these monumental works of art. - [Steven] And he found a ready audience. Readers of Harper's Monthly loved these stories of the western landscape, of the rugged individual life, and this is foundational to our understanding of what is American. Just two years before this painting was made, the historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, had given an important speech at the Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago, talking about the end of the frontier, the closing of the frontier. Early in Anglo-American history, the Allegheny Mountains had functioned as the frontier, next the Midwest, then the Rocky Mountains, but ultimately, manifest destiny was enacted, that is the United States stretched from, the Atlantic to the Pacific, and only small pockets remained unsettled. And so this painting is of a particular historical moment. This painting is about a broad recognition that there was a fundamental change taking place in American history. America had always expanded, it had always had what it considered free and open lands. Of course, Native Americans already lived there, but now, America was facing a different future. - [Sara] And Frederic Remington recognized this. He wrote to Owen Wister in the fall of 1894 quote, "Say Wister, go ahead please, make me an article on the evolution of the puncher, the passing, as it were. So as America and Americans, we're expanding westward, putting the cowboy way of life out of business. It was important for Frederic Remington to capture this moment both in print and in picture, and then, have Owen Wister write the article, Evolution of a Cow-Puncher. And then, just a few short years later, wrote his seminal work, The Virginian. - [Steven] And one could argue that the Hollywood industry of the cowboy and Indian movie is a direct result of The Virginian and paintings by Frederic Remington. (jazzy piano music)