Cowboy Paintings: A Brief Introduction
Cowboy paintings evoke striking images of broad landscapes, expansive skies, expert horse riders, and agricultural life. Yet, while Wild West art features these powerful images, it offers a unique insight into American life in the 19th century.
Depictions of the American Wild West tackle fascinating themes and topics, often foregrounding America’s troubled history and treatment of native populations. In addition, historical paintings shaped perceptions of American politics, culture, landscape, and the implications of Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion.
This brief introduction explores famous cowboy paintings, leading painters, and pioneering lives.
When was Western Cowboy Art created?
Wild West art and cowboy paintings provide a remarkable testament to the lasting mythological status and cultural power of the American West. From the late 1790s until the beginning of the twentieth century, artists of the new frontier portrayed everyday life in a massive array of media and styles.
Despite this, the main phase of intense artistic creativity began in the 1880s. The ensuing period, lasting roughly until the early twentieth century, saw the rise of many iconic cowboy artists.
Who painted Wild West Art?
The most famous painters of cowboy art included Charles M Russell, Frederic Remington, and Walter Ufer. Together, these men presented an unparalleled view of American life and history.
Walter Ufer’s art is less well-known today than Russell and Remington's. Perhaps this is because Ufer was born in Germany but was raised in Kentucky, and he spent much of his working life in New Mexico. Ufer’s paintings focus on scenes of Native American life, particularly the Southwestern United States Pueblo Peoples. After studying in Hamburg and Dresden, he worked as a printer and taught art in Chicago. Subsequently, Walter Ufer traveled to Taos in New Mexico, where many of his most famous oil paintings were created.
Walter Ufer’s oil paintings of Native American life and landscape paintings of the Old West utilize a vivid color palette with broad expressive brushstrokes. Ufer's paintings demonstrate his pride in time-honored local cultures and deep interest in the cowboy way of life.
Wild West Art and Frederic Remington Paintings
If there’s one great famous American artist known for old American West paintings, it is Frederic Sackrider Remington. Frederic Remington paintings concentrate on cowboys and Indians and American landscapes and the people farming them.
Remington produced an astounding number of cowboy paintings. In less than thirty years, he created over 3,000 artworks. Driven by a desire to protect the “traditional lifestyle” of the West, Remington glamorized the drama and conflict he believed were essential to Western American life.
In dynamic cowboy paintings such as Aiding a Comrade, men charge on horseback through a classic American landscape to provide just one example. Two cowboys heroically save a fallen friend, who is about to hit the hard ground and horses’ hooves.
Why is Frederic Remington famous for his Cowboy Paintings?
Born in 1861, Remington grew up during the expansion of the American railroads and rapid industrialization. In contrast to these modern capitalistic developments, Remington focused on “hard fighting, hard riding” action figures.
Famous Frederic Remington paintings such as The Flight and A Dash for Timber depict moments of high tension and action, demonstrating the wild natural character of the West. Nonetheless, he also depicted highly dynamic scenes such as The Fall of the Cowboy, which show socio-economic hardship and the decline of traditional ways of life.
Despite his fascination with rural life, Remington was born in New York and attended art school at Yale University. His art career began after a trip to Montana, where he started illustrating for local magazines and newspapers.
Remington’s talent for managing complex compositions and a growing naturalistic style impressed his early employers and later art critics. The result is Frederic Remington’s now-iconic large-scale paintings of the people and animals of the American West landscape.
Who is Known as the Cowboy Artist?
Charles Marion Russell is known as the “cowboy artist.” This nickname came from his astounding ability to portray the life and soul of the Old West.
Like Remington, Russell fell in love with the American West as a young man. He worked as a cowboy in Montana and moved to Big Sky Country at sixteen, working on several ranches while sketching and painting his life and experiences.
Russell also lived with a Native American tribe for some time. This provided him with intimate knowledge and sympathy for their life and culture. Atmospheric works such as Tracks Tell Tales that Rivers make Secret and When the Plains Were His demonstrate this deep compassion for the Native American people and their struggle to preserve their lands, culture, and lives.
In contrast to calmer depictions of Native American life, in paintings such as Camp Cook’s Troubles, paintings by Charlie Russell show the violent and dramatic life of the working cowboy. The painting shows cowboys working with unruly horses first thing in the morning. The breakfast campfire is still lit, and the bucking horse is causing havoc.
Other Charlie Russell paintings, for instance, In Without Knocking, represent the lawless nature of life in frontier towns. Men on horseback charge straight into a dilapidated prairie business, brandishing guns in the air as chaos and destruction reign.
Did Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell know each other?
Even though they both lived and worked in Montana, Charles Russell, and Frederic Remington never met. Despite this, critics compared their Western cowboy paintings and lifestyles throughout their careers. As a result, they are both known as the preeminent American West storytellers and Western cowboy art painters.
Both men were both raised by wealthy conservative families. They grew up during the post-Civil War era, when the mountains, prairies, and mythological Western shores represented economic and spiritual renewal in the American psyche. Both Remington and Russell attended military academies in their younger years. Nevertheless, the men’s families supported their artistic and creative endeavors despite their army training.
Notwithstanding these similarities, there are essential differences between the two men’s careers. Frederic Remington relished a wide national reputation, while Charles Russell cultivated a more local, loyal following. Moreover, Charlie Russell paintings often foreground native Indian perspectives. Conversely, Remington held profoundly negative conceptions of Indians as savages and favored the American Settlers’ views and versions of events.
While the two men did not know each other, they knew each other’s paintings. Indeed, Russell’s nephew once recalled the artist ruminating on the similarities between their art. Russell commented, “When some art critic compares our pictures,” they’d say, “Russell and Remington saw the same country but not the same colors.” Russell opined that perhaps this was just a “difference of light.”
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