"They Are a Fine Outfit Those Blackfeet": Frederic Remington in Western Canada

By Peter H. Hassrick

 



 

Frederic Remington came early in life to be regarded as the leading figure in American art to explore western subjects. It was without question, observed the critic William Coffin in 1892, only six years after Remington began his art career, that "people have formed their conceptions of what the Far-Western life is like, more from what they have seen in Mr. Remington's pictures than from any other source."[1] In his view,Canada's frontier region, as an integral part of that Far-Western life, provided compelling subjects for his art. In every medium that Remington explored -- watercolour, pen and ink, oil, and bronze -- western Canada found expression. Its people and landscape engaged his creative force and served as his muse throughout his life.

For Remington, Canada was not just some remote destination, nor a slightly exotic neighbour to the north. For him, Canada represented a core locus within his world, a place that while physically distant from his doorstep during most of his life, was nonetheless central to his experiential aspirations, his artistic vision, and his basic definition of North America.

Western Canada provided a particularly compelling focus for his work during the early years of his career. He made two special trips to Alberta and Saskatchewan, one in 1887 and another in 1890. That brief exposure made a lasting impression on the artist, confirming his belief that the frontier West traversed international borders. He was convinced as a result of his visits that the Blackfoot Indians were a remarkable people, excelling all Northern Plains tribes in physical beauty and historical legacy; also that the North-West Mounted Police, beyond their colourful demeanor and valorous record, represented a fundamental frontier martial order that especially resonated with Remington's political and social perspectives.

Canada's appeal for Remington began as a close and affectionate childhood memory. He grew up in upstate New York and during much of that time Canada was in view directly across the St. Lawrence River. His father, Seth Pierre Remington, served for many years during the decade of the 1870s as collector of revenue for the port of Ogdensburg (at the time, the largest Canadian/U.S. port of entry).

As a young man, Frederic was a robust outdoorsman who hunted and fished in the woods of eastern Canada. And later in middle age, he sought the quiet shores of Canadian lakes in southwestern Quebec as subjects for his art (for example, Evening on a Canadian Lake, 1905, William Koch collection, Palm Beach) and as personal retreats from the pressures of professional life. He also owned an island, Ingleneuk, on the St. Lawrence River, for the last nine years of his life. There he painted many of his major canvases including some, like Radisson and Groseilliers (1906, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody) that paid tribute to the early Canadian explorers and founders of the Hudson's Bay Company. When Remington was not painting at Ingleneuk, he would be found plying the broad St. Lawrence in his Ruxton canoe. Many of his most enjoyable hours were thus spent paddling the waters that separated yet bound the two countries. Canada, then, was as familiar as his home and as much a part of his life as any section of his own country. And his connections with its western reaches, particularly Alberta and Saskatchewan, were especially cherished. For it was there that he gained some of his first successes as an illustrator and painter. 

From the very beginning of Remington's artistic journey, he focussed on the American West, a region that was a place of self-discovery for him personally, a place where he could prove his mettle against formidable odds presented by raw nature. It was -- according to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny that was firmly in place during Remington's lifetime -- a dangerous and rather desolate place that could, in the artist's mind and that of the public, be tamed through the process of civilization. And it was for him a region of international rather than merely national scope. Thus his first formal art assignment, a trip to the Southwest to report on the Geronimo campaign in 1886, included a foray into Mexico, as far south as Hermosillo. The war with the Apaches was one that crossed national boundaries and had implications, and for the artist, appeal, well beyond the dusty confines of Arizona Territory.

He also insisted, as an artist-correspondent, on riding side-by-side with the cavalry, and he revealed in the early illustrations for the Harper's commission a proclivity for martial subjects and a genuine, though at first rather perverse, interest in Native peoples. Indians were for him, in these initial encounters, representative of a pervasive malevolent element. He perceived them as impeding the spread of civilization and felt, as did many of his generation, that they needed to be controlled by force. Remington's father had served with distinction in the American Civil War and from childhood Frederic had revelled in things military.

In Remington's later years he reminisced about his earliest trip west, a summer's jaunt to Montana in 1881, and recalled observing that the frontier was rapidly closing. "I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever," he wrote. "Without knowing exactly how to do it, I began to try to record some facts around me, and the more I looked the more the panorama unfolded." [2] That panorama, at least in the initial decade or more of his career, was peopled with military figures who served the cause of taming the very region he later lamented for losing its wildness. The Indian in that scenario was a worthy and resolute foe.           

In the spring of 1887 Remington visited western Canada for the first time. This was his second major assignment for Harper's. In his artist-correspondent capacity, he stopped on the way at the Crow Agency in Montana where there had been recent reports of Indian unrest. He then moved north into Alberta to make observations among the Blackfoot along the Bow River and to study the North-West Mounted Police. The Blackfoot were especially inviting subjects because of their role as one of the dominant forces in northern plains history. Remington found them, as he told an Arizona friend, Powhatan Clarke, to be "really magnificent . . . more élan than even the Sioux the tuft of hair & feather give them a dash -- all wear a medal of Queen Vic -- look more like Cooper than anything [I] have seen -- hair more like a Mohawk you know." [3]  His reference to James Fenimore Cooper suggests that he was searching for an ideal native type. He found what he sought in the Blackfoot.

Remington was equipped with a camera and a sketchbook as tools to record the likenesses and lifeways of the Blackfoot. He discovered that his task was not without hazard, however. As he recounted in a later article about practising his craft among Native peoples in Canada, "a Blackfeet upon the Bow River had shown a desire to tomahawk me because I was endeavoring to immortalize him." [4] Remington learned to ask permission. A summary of the artist's observations appeared in a composite drawing, In the Lodges of the Blackfeet [Fig. 29] published by Harper's Weekly later that summer. In a series of vignettes, Remington provided a pictorial account of Blackfoot life and personal adornment. [5] Such composite drawings were a common means of expression for the artist in the late 1880s. He would frequently compose sets of individual observations into one pleasing pictorial collection in order to provide a feeling for the whole.

At the centre of this composition was a portrait of the Blackfoot head chief, Crowfoot, who Remington had met at the time. It was a straightforward portrayal, devoid of glorification or stoic characterization. Yet, in an understated way, Crowfoot's exalted stature showed through. Tribal life revolved around him, and his contemplative expression mirrored the thoughtful leadership he had provided his people during extremely difficult times. Remington would have agreed with his close friend, Julian Ralph, who had met Crowfoot in these years and looked upon him as "a splendid man, kingly in every respect. He looked like portraits of Julius Caesar." [6] Remington owned a photograph of Crowfoot by Alexander Ross of Calgary [Fig. 30] that he may have purchased at the time of his 1887 visit but it does not appear to have been the inspiration for his pen and ink portrait.

The artifacts that made up the Blackfoot still life composite in the lower right corner of Remington's drawing were items that he had purchased in the Canadian West that spring. They became part of a burgeoning studio collection that the artist was assembling and that served as costumes for his models over many years. These items were gathered, not with any ethnographic interest in mind, but simply as studio adornments and artistic props. He used them rather indiscriminately to clothe Indians of a wide variety of tribal identifications. Most of these items, for example, appeared as beautiful vignette drawings [31 to 33] in an 1890 edition of Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha that Remington was commissioned to illustrate. The artist's sense that the Blackfoot represented a quintessential Indian "type" (as he called frontier groups of all sorts), allowed him to use them and the artifacts he collected from them as templates over which he could conceptualize his artistic notion of "Indian-ness" in general.

When Remington visited the Blackfoot in 1887 they were being encouraged by their Indian agent to plant and maintain gardens and, whenever possible, to take up farming. Crowfoot himself worked a garden plot. Remington did not record the transformation that was being wrought on these people. He chose instead to portray them as warriors and nomadic hunters. Harper's Weekly referred to the Blackfoot as "the Apaches of the past," remarking on their legendary bellicosity, their "warlike character," and their "independent manner." [7] Remington's attraction to the Blackfoot was dependent in large part on the warrior ethos that permeated their culture and parallelled his own penchant for military activity. It was these qualities of the Blackfoot people that most intrigued him, not the painful realities of the reservation acculturation process that were everywhere in evidence. Remington's painting, A Blackfeet Indian [Plate 10] pictured a resolute and independent horseman posed proudly before his village of tipis. Remington's was a selective vision.     

Remington also had come to western Canada to observe the North-West Mounted Police in action. The Police had recently helped to quell a highly publicized uprising of Metis known to Remington as the Riel Rebellion. The artist liked conflict, especially that with a foreseeable conclusion on the side of what he saw as law and order. The Mounted Police represented for him the quintessentially ideal subject. They were colourful, they were an effective equestrian quasi-military police force, they represented an exotic foreign theme for audiences in the eastern United States, and they were male stalwarts of a martial order known to be fearless and firm yet fair.

As a tribute to the Mounted Police, Remington produced a variety of spirited depictions. He painted potent oil portraits of them such as Canadian Mounted Policeman, Regina Barracks, and Cavalryman. He presented their training exercises and public demonstrations of equestrian synchrony, as in the manoeuvres illustrated in Harper's Weekly with the title of The Canadian Mounted Police on a "Musical Ride" -- "Charge" [Fig. 34]. Here, the "lancers," carrying "imported bamboo lances, and with their Mexican saddles and fiery bronchos presented a very strange spectacle." [8] It was, as Harper's noted, an amusement as well as a serious test of skill.

The brass band strikes up a lively air, the audience gather round -- Indians, travelers, policeman, all the population of the frontier post -- and then the ride begins. First at a walk, then at a trot, finally at a gallop, they cross and recross, grand chain, all the figures of the well-known dance as far as they can be adapted for quadruped performers. The grand last act is a charge, with lances "leveled in long, long row," delivered with a vim that made our special artist, who from the vantage-ground of a soap box was sketching the scene, feel his point of observation decidedly insecure. 

Remington employed this pictorial sweep in many of his later compositions. He had learned it from French nineteenth century academic military painters such as Edouard Detaille. It provided the basic compositional format for the most ambitious paintings of Remington's career, Right Front Into Line, Come On! of 1891. As one of several rhetorical stratagems invented by Remington to demonstrate the valour and tenacity of the Mounted Police, the artist also painted a watercolour, Arrest of a Blackfeet Murderer [Fig. 35], after his return to his studio in Brooklyn. It showed no less that six Mounted Police bringing an accused Blackfoot to justice, perhaps a scene Remington had witnessed. It also reflected a sense of fatalism and resigned hopelessness, with the Indian's uplifted hand and what Harper's referred to as a "stoical look on his face." [9] There was a clear moral here, a paradox that the magazine pointed out for readers who might otherwise miss the irony.

The only accessories to the grim scene are skulls of buffaloes, the chief support of Indians of this type. Their food has been slaughtered mercilessly by the arms of precision invented by the whites, and the Blackfeet, unwilling and in most cases unable to settle down as farmers and citizens, owing to their inherited nature and the absence of those traits which permit white men to thrive in regions swept bare of game, are forced to plunder or to starve. [10]

There was also a not-so-subtle racist implication to Harper's words. The editors, and the vast majority of their Anglo-American readers, presumed that Indians were psychologically, intellectually, and culturally incapable of sustaining themselves by means of agriculture. Remington shared that view.


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