Western artists Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell did much to shape the public’s imagination of the American West through their illustrations, paintings and sculpture, but they shouldn’t be seen as mirror images, said Western art scholar B. Byron Price.
Price, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West, will speak at the Mayborn Museum at 11 a.m. Thursday on “Remington & Russell: Art of the Trail.”
His lecture, part of the 150th anniversary of the Chisholm Trail, also highlights the opening of the Mayborn Museum’s show “Off the Range: The Art and Architecture of the Trail” which features several Remington bronzes. This exhibit was made possible by a loan from the Texas Baptist Historical Collection in Waco.
“Remington and Russell are always considered the representative artists of the American West, particularly the Cowboy West. They’re spoken so often as a set of bookends, but they’re really not,” Price said.
Price pointed out multiple differences between the two artists, though they shared a common interest in the Old West of the late 19th and early 20th century.
The New York-born Remington lived primarily in the East, Russell, a St. Louis, Missouri, native, the West. Russell was an actual cowboy for 12 years while Remington, at best, was a sheep rancher for a short period. Russell was a self-taught artist. Remington took classes for awhile at Yale Art School.
“Remington was the better technician, but Russell had the spirit,” the center director said. “I’ve been in a lot of ranch houses and bunk houses that had Russell prints on the wall, but none have had a Remington print.”
Russell’s Western roots may have aided that spirit. He was a descendant of William Bent, founder of the famous trading post Bent’s Fort in Colorado and likely heard Bent’s stories of cowboys and Native Americans whenever Bent and his traders passed through St. Louis, Missouri, on their visits to the East, Price said.
Russell’s thousands of letters to friends and acquaintances, many illustrated in the margins, also capture much of his personality. “His letters are choice . . . funny today and insightful,” Price said.
If the center director has a slight leaning toward Russell, it’s understandable: The center collaborated with the C.M. Russell Museum of Great Falls, Montana, to create a catalogue raisonne that documented every piece of art and illustrated correspondence that Russell created in his lifetime, some 4,000 items.
The two western artists might have met during Russell’s visits to New York City, the first of which was in 1903, before Remington’s death in 1909. At that time, Russell was expanding his art into cast bronzes, a medium that proved one of Remington’s legacies in American art.
“Remington really brings a lot to the table (in his bronze work). In my opinion, that’s where he made his greatest influence on American art,” Price said.
Remington had a gift of “infusing motion into the metal,” capturing the energy and movement of bronco busters and cowboy riders in his sculptures. As visitors to the Mayborn’s exhibit will see, the western artist also displayed an ability to achieve balance in his moving figures despite their weight.
Remington’s bronzes show an aspect to western art that characterized the work of both men, telling stories with their images. That set them apart from their peers and has made their work so enduring, even if it sometimes lacks in accuracy, Price noted.
When it comes to paintings and drawings of life on a cattle trail, much less the Chisholm Trail , neither artists’ works features many examples. “It’s more in Remington’s work than Russell’s,” Price said. “The Chisholm Trail was largely played out by Russell’s time. You don’t find many paintings of the Trail.”