Artist: Frederic Remington
Commentary by Phillip A. Snyder
Associate Professor of English
According to Richard Slotkin, Frederic Remington belonged to a group of Easterners, led both ideologically and pragmatically by Theodore Roosevelt, who believed that the American frontier offered the Anglo-Saxon “race” an opportunity to awaken and exercise its dormant warrior virtues by living what Roosevelt called the “strenuous life” in the West. Critics considered the turn-of-the-century emergence of “red-blooded” American realist and naturalist authors such as Frank Norris, Hamlin Garland, and Jack London to be a much needed masculine antidote for the refined, feminine, reformist sensibilities in fiction written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and other women writers of the 19th century. Remington saw the closing of the frontier, with the intendant loss of wilderness and indigenous peoples, as lamentable for the future of Anglo-Saxon racial virtue and superiority. Without worthy antagonists against whom to measure themselves, how would Anglo-Saxons demonstrate their inherent worth? In his novel, John Ermine of Yellowstone (1902), Remington creates his protagonist after the mythic pattern of James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo (alias Leather-Stocking, Hawkeye, Pathfinder, Deerslayer), a liminal figure embodying the firm moral core of the Anglo-Saxon with all the wilderness survival skills of the Native American, in short, an ideal frontier man.
Mountain Man represents another version of this liminal figure, often called the “man who knows Indians,” who, by inference, would also know the wilderness in which the Indian flourishes. As a major artist of the American West, Remington may be described as a kind of liminal figure himself, an artistic correspondent who visited and chronicled the exotic and savage West in his iconic work for civilized audiences at home and abroad, audiences who, even today, have insatiable appetites for all things Western. Whatever its artistic and symbolic merits, however, Mountain Man does not depict a very accurate technical portrayal. Sadly, Remington does not appear to be a man who knows mountain men—or horses, for that matter—as this sculpture features a number of questionable details which undermine its authenticity: the equine being a strange cross between a mule and a horse, with long muley ears and (impossibly long) narrow hooves and a horsey tail swishing in a precarious situation where most horse’s tails would be firmly between their legs; the rider’s legs pulled up into the equine’s flank on a descent when they would be stretched out naturally to brace himself against the pull of gravity; the cropper (around the root of the tail) would be accompanied by a (missing) breast strap in front to balance the saddle on mountainous ascents and descents; the poorly balanced load topped by an unsecured axe would never stay in place; the minimal bridle would be placed over a halter (or a noose) attached to a lead rope; the back cinch would be paired with a (missing) front cinch; the unusually hefty quirt (whip) seems more appropriate to a cowboy than a mountain man; the rifle would more likely be placed in a scabbard rather than being balanced across the pommel of the saddle. Nevertheless, Mountain Man reminds us that the art of the West, like all our nostalgic romanticizing of it in our cultural artifacts, must be considered a fiction, albeit a highly engaging and often inspiring one.
Source: Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Slotkin (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998)