Frederic Remington was born in Canton, New York in 1861 to Seth Pierrepont Remington and Clarissa Bascom Sackrider, whose family owned hardware stores and emigrated from Alsace-Lorraine in the early 1700's. Remington's father was a colonel in the Civil War whose family arrived in the United States from England in 1637. He was a newspaper editor and postmaster, and the family was active in local politics and staunchly Republican. One of Remington's great grandfathers, Samuel Bascom, was a saddle maker by trade, and the Remingtons were fine horsemen. Frederic Remington was related by family bloodlines to Indian portrait artist George Catlin and cowboy sculptor Earl W. Bascom.
Colonel Remington was away at war during most of the first four years of his son's life. After the war, he moved his family to Bloomington, Illinois for a brief time and was appointed editor of the Bloomington Republican, but the family returned to Canton in 1867. Remington was the only child of the marriage, and received constant attention and approval. He was an active child, large and strong for his age, who loved to hunt, swim, ride, and go camping. He was a poor student, though, particularly in math, which did not bode well for his father's ambitions for his son to attend West Point. He began to make drawings and sketches of soldiers and cowboys at an early age.
The family moved to Ogdensburg, New York when Remington was eleven and he attended Vermont Episcopal Institute, a church-run military school, where his father hoped discipline would rein in his son's lack of focus, and perhaps lead to a military career. Remington took his first drawing lessons at the Institute. He then transferred to another military school where his classmates found the young Remington to be a pleasant fellow, a bit careless and lazy, good-humored, and generous of spirit, but definitely not soldier material. He enjoyed making caricatures and silhouettes of his classmates. At sixteen, he wrote to his uncle of his modest ambitions, "I never intend to do any great amount of labor. I have but one short life and do not aspire to wealth or fame in a degree which could only be obtained by an extraordinary effort on my part". He imagined a career for himself as a journalist, with art as a sideline.
Remington attended the art school at Yale University, the only male in the freshman year. However, he found that football and boxing were more interesting than the formal art training, particularly drawing from casts and still life objects. He preferred action drawing and his first published illustration was a cartoon of a "bandaged football player" for the student newspaper Yale Courant. Though he was not a star player, his participation on the strong Yale football team was a great source of pride for Remington and his family. He left Yale in 1879 to tend to his ailing father who had tuberculosis. His father died a year later, at age forty-six, receiving respectful recognition from the citizens of Ogdensburg. Remington's Uncle Mart secured a good paying clerical job for his nephew in Albany, New York and Remington would return home on weekends to see his girlfriend Eva Caten. After the rejection of his engagement proposal to Eva by her father, Remington became a reporter for his Uncle Mart's newspaper, then went on to other short-lived jobs.
In 1886, Remington was sent to Arizona by Harper's Weekly on a commission as an artist-correspondent to cover the government's war against Geronimo. Although he never caught up with Geronimo, Remington did acquire many authentic artifacts to be used later as props, and made many photos and sketches valuable for later paintings. He also made notes on the true colors of the West, such as "shadows of horses should be a cool carmine & Blue", to supplement the black and white photos. Ironically, art critics later criticized his palette as "primitive and unnatural" even though it was based on actual observation.
After returning back East, Remington was sent by Harper's Weekly to cover the Charleston, South Carolina earthquake of 1886. To expand his commission work, he also began doing drawings for Outing magazine. His first year as a commercial artist had been successful, earning Remington $1,200, almost triple that of a typical teacher. He had found his life's work and bragged to a friend, "That's a pretty good break for an ex cow-puncher to come to New York with USD30 and catch on it 'art'."
For commercial reproduction in black-and-white, he produced ink and wash drawings. As he added watercolor, he began to sell his work in art exhibitions. His works were selling well but garnered no prizes, as the competition was strong and masters like Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson were considered his superiors. A trip to Canada in 1887, produced illustrations of the Blackfeet, he Crows, and the Canadian Mounties, eagerly enjoyed by the reading public.
Later that year, Remington received a commission to do eighty-three illustrations for a book by Theodore Roosevelt, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, to be serialized in The Century Magazine before publication. The twenty-five year old Roosevelt had a similar Western adventure to Remington, losing money on a ranch in North Dakota the previous year but gaining experience which made him an "expert" on the West. The assignment gave Remington's career a big boost and forged a lifelong connection with Roosevelt.
Remington's fame made him a favorite of the Western Army officers fighting the last Indian battles. He was invited out West to make their portraits in the field and to gain them national publicity through Remington's articles and illustrations for Harper's Weekly, particularly General Nelson Miles, an Indian fighter who aspired to the presidency of the United States. In turn, Remington got exclusive access to the soldiers and their stories, and boosted his reputation with the reading public as "The Soldier Artist". Remington arrived on the scene just after the Massacre at Wounded Knee, in which over 300 Sioux were slaughtered and which he reported it as "The Sioux Outbreak in South Dakota", praising the Army's "heroic" actions in dealing with the Indians. Some of the Miles paintings are monochromatic and have an almost "you-are-there" photographic quality, heightening the realism, as in The Parley (1898)
Remington's Self-Portrait on a Horse (1890) shows the artist as he wished he was, not the pot-bellied Easterner weighing heavily on a horse, but a tough, lean cowboy heading for adventure with his trusty steed. It was the image his publishers worked hard to maintain as well. In His Last Stand (1890), a cornered bear in the middle of a prairie is brought down by dogs and riflemen, which may have been a symbolized treatment of the dying Indians he had witnessed. Remington's attitude toward Native Americans was typical for the time. He thought them unfathomable, fearless, superstitious, ignorant, and pitiless-and generally portrayed them as such. White men under attack were brave and noble.
Through the 1890's, Remington took frequent trips around the U.S., Mexico, and abroad to gather ideas for articles and illustrations, but his military and cowboy subjects always sold the best, even as the Old West was playing out. Gradually, he transitioned from the premiere chronicler-artist of the Old West to its most important historian-artist. He formed an effective partnership with Owen Wister, who became the leading writer of Western stories at the time. Having more confidence of his craft, Remington wrote, " My drawing is done entirely from memory. I never use a camera now. The interesting never occurs in nature as a whole, but in pieces. It's more what I leave out than what I add." Remington's focus continued on outdoor action and he rarely depicted scenes in gambling and dance halls typically seen in Western movies. He avoids frontier women as well. His painting A Misdeal (1897) is a rare instance of indoor cowboy violence.
Remington's had developed a sculptor's 360 degree sense of vision but until a chance remark by playwright Augustus Thomas in 1895, Remington had not yet conceived of himself as a sculptor and thought of it as a separate art for which he had no training or aptitude. With help from friend and sculptor Frederick Ruckstuhl, Remington constructed his first armature and clay model, a "bronco buster" where the horse is reared on its hind legs-technically a very challenging subject. After several months, the novice sculptor overcame the difficulties and had a plaster cast made, then bronze copies, which were sold at Tiffany's. Remington was ecstatic about his new line of work, and though critical response was mixed, some labelling it negatively as "illustrated sculpture", it was a successful first effort earning him $6,000 over three years.
Remington's association with Roosevelt paid off, however, when the artist became a war correspondent and illustrator during the Spanish-American War in 1898, sent to provide illustrations for William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. He witnessed the assault on San Juan Hill by American forces, including those led by Roosevelt. However, his heroic conception of war, based in part on his father's Civil War experiences, were shattered by the actual horror of jungle fighting and the deprivations he faced in camp. His reports and illustrations upon his return focused not on heroic generals but on the troops, as in his Scream of the Shrapnel (1899), which depicts a deadly ambush on American troops by an unseen enemy. When the Rough Riders returned to the U.S., they presented their courageous leader Roosevelt with Remington's bronze statuette, The Bronco Buster, which the artist proclaimed, "the greatest compliment I ever had... After this everything will be mere fuss." Roosevelt responded, "There could have been no more appropriate gift from such a regiment."
In 1888, he achieved the public honor of having two paintings used for reproduction on U. S. Postal stamps. In 1900, as an economy move, Harper's dropped Remington as their star artist. To compensate for the loss of work, Remington wrote and illustrated a full-length novel, The Way of an Indian, which was intended for serialization by a Hearst publication but not published until five years later in Cosmopolitan. Remington's protagonist, a Cheyenne named Fire Eater, is a prototype Native American as viewed by Remington and many of his time.
Remington then returned to sculpture, and produced his first works produced by the lost wax method, a higher quality process than the earlier sand casting method he had employed. By 1901, Collier's was buying Remington's illustrations on a steady basis. As his style matured, Remington portrayed his subjects in every light of day. His nocturnal paintings, very popular in his late life, such as A Taint on the Wind and Scare in the Pack Train, are more impressionistic and loosely painted, and focus on the unseen threat.
Remington completed another novel in 1902, John Ermine of the Yellowstone, a modest success but a definite disappointment as it was completely overshadowed by the best seller The Virginian, written by his sometime collaborator Owen Wister, which became a classic Western novel. A stage play based on "John Ermine" failed in 1904. After "John Ermine", Remington decided he would soon quit writing and illustration (after drawing over 2700 illustrations) to focus on sculpture and painting.
In 1905, Remington had a major publicity coup when Collier's devoted an entire issue to the artist and his art, showcasing his latest works. His large outdoor sculpture of a "Big cowboy", which stands on the East River Drive in Philadelphia, was another late success. His "Explorers" series, depicting older historical events in western U.S. history, did not fair well with the public or the critics. The financial panic of 1907 caused a slow down in his sales and in 1908, fantasy artists, such as Maxfield Parrish, became popular with the public and with commercial sponsors. Remington tried to sell his home in New Rochelle to get further away from urbanization. One night he made a bonfire in his yard and burned dozens of his oil paintings which had been used for magazine illustration (worth millions of dollars today), making an emphatic statement that he was done with illustration forever. He wrote, "there is nothing left but my landscape studies". Near the end of his life, he moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut. In his final two years, under the influence of The Ten, he was veering more heavily to Impressionism, and he regretted that he was studio bound (by virtue of his declining health) and could not follow his peers who painted "plein air".
Frederic Remington died after an emergency appendectomy led to peritonitis on December 26, 1909. His extreme obesity (weight nearly 300 lbs.) had complicated the anesthesia and the surgery, and chronic appendicitis was cited in the post-mortem examination as an underlying factor in his death.
The Frederick Remington House was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965.