The very first time established artist Frederic Remington turned his hand to sculpture, in 1895, he made The Broncho Buster. The dynamic action of a cowboy firmly seated on a twisting, rearing horse turned out to be as good as printing money. The sculpture was put on display at Tiffany in New York City, and sales began to ring immediately.
Remington created 22 sculptures over the next 14 years, before his death in 1909, and they became financially more successful than his paintings.
His first effort proved to be his most popular piece.
"He sold over 150 of these during his lifetime. It was as good as an annuity," says Rick Stewart, former director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and now guest curator of the 30th anniversary exhibition at Fort Worth's Sid Richardson Museum.
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To celebrate its third decade in Sundance Square, the museum has gathered a spectacular collection of Remington bronzes, many of them rarely seen.
"Violent Motion: Frederic Remington's Artistry in Bronze" is a must-see exhibition.
No matter how many times you might have seen the Remington and Russell sculptures at the Carter, the Richardson or elsewhere, this display of Remington's sculptures, many of them rarities, is spectacular. His ability to capture frantic moments of danger and speed are unparalleled. He was known to say, "I can do more action than a camera can," Stewart says.
The first version of The Rattlesnake depicts a horse frightened by a chance encounter with a snake. The horse throws his body away from the reptile, and the rider, hanging tight, moves with the horse so that the whole balance of the sculpture is perilously weighted to one side. Only the horse's hind feet support horse and rider. It is a testament to Remington's eye for volume and balance that this piece works at all. In a later version of The Rattlesnake, more support was given to the horse's legs to support the torque of the body.
In Coming Through the Rye, a group of four drunken cowboys brandishing their pistols and swaying dangerously in their saddles as their horses run at a gallop is all but airborne. Of the 16 hooves available for the horses' support, only six of them are touching the base. One of the horses has all four feet off the ground; he and his rider are completely supported by the neighboring cowboy. They are physically connected by the overlay of the riders' chaps.
Remington's sculptures do not look like a frozen moment in time; they have a fluid, cinematic quality. It is as if a snippet of film is playing. As your eye travels the sculpture, the movement you see in the front has changed by the time your eye travels to the horse's rear.
Remington accentuated this by putting the horses' legs in impossible positions -- front legs gathered as if to jump, rear legs splaying straight out behind in full gallop. It may not be natural, but it evokes extreme movement, what collector Sid Richardson coined as Remington's "violent motion."
Several of the sculptures are positioned in front of Remington paintings with similar figures. It is a testament to the quality of the exhibit that the Carter museum loaned A Dash for the Timber, one of its most important Remington paintings, to be placed near Coming Through the Rye and The Wounded Bunkie. In the painting, a group of cowboys is tearing away from their camp, running straight out of the painting. Remington used several of these horsemen in subsequent sculptures.
Wounded Bunkie shows two soldiers, one wounded and kept from falling by the arm of his comrade. The flying mass of horses and riders is supported by only two horse legs. It is a stunning display of motion and balance. The same pair can be seen in A Dash for the Timber.
Twenty Wounded Bunkies were cast in 1896 and each sold for $400; Coming Through the Rye in 1902 sold for $1,000. The Broncho Buster sold for $250 originally. Now one of those originals would fetch $750,000.
"Or more," says Stewart, "if you can find one." This work continues to be copied. "There must be thousands of posthumous casts," Stewart says, and determining which is original to Remington and what is a later copy can be difficult.
One of Remington's most limited editions was The Norther from 1900. Only three of them were made, and they were bought by people who saw the model in Remington's studio before it was cast. Remington described it as: "A cowboy on horseback in a snow storm. Severe wind blowing from rear. Both man and horse are almost frozen."
The horse is not moving, but Remington created the effects of the wind so deftly, the horse's winter coat, mane and tail are all swirling, as are the cowboy's clothing and furry chaps. No records explain why more of these weren't made; perhaps it is because this sculpture is not as dynamic as the others. The movement here comes from an external, unseen force. But it has a similar pathos to The Luckless Hunter, a nearby painting that depicts a winter night scene with an Indian returning home without a kill.
This sculpture was Remington's first attempt at the lost wax method of casting. He found that it gave him much more control over fine texture, and he exploited that in the way the wind ripples across horse and rider. After this success, his pieces became even more detailed. Before he began using the lost wax method, his sculptures were cast in as many as 20 pieces; now they could be made in just a few, with the reins, whips, canteens and such added after the main body was cast.
It is the details in Remington's sculptures that are transfixing, and often they are missed. In a museum setting, these pieces, which were scaled to fit in people's homes, are often lost in galleries where the ceilings soar and the walls are hung with large, brightly colored paintings. Here in the Sid Richardson Museum, the gallery space is more appropriate to the size of the sculptures. They don't get lost, and the placement of the bronzes near paintings with similar scenes and figures makes a visually compelling experience.
There is more to the exhibit than currently meets the eye. There is such a wealth of Remington sculptures in private collections in this area that Stewart has been compelled to make it a two-parter. The first group of sculptures and paintings will be on exhibit through Feb. 24, when Dash has to return to the Carter. Then some of the bronzes will be changed out for a more expanded view of just how adept Remington was at both painting and sculpting.
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113