Cowboy mystique lives on in Remington bronzes

Remington’s The Cheyenne, modeled 1901, realized $170,000 at Santa Fe Art Auction December 2014. Photo courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and Santa Fe Art Auction

NEW YORK – Forever associated with cowboys and a romanticized picture of a vanishing Wild West, Frederic Sackrider Remington (American, 1861-1909) started out as a most unlikely cowboy. He was born in in upstate New York and spent his first 20 years of life in New York and New England, studying art at Yale. It wasn’t until the fall of 1881, a year after his father’s death, that he embarked on a life-changing, two-month trip to the Montana Territory — his first time in the West. He was immediately hooked.

“The soldier, the cowboy & the rancher, the Indian…will live in his bronzes and pictures, I verily believe all time,” said Theodore Roosevelt in October 1907. A skilled marketer eager to develop a celebrity clientele, Remington would often gift his artworks to famous people, including Roosevelt, who became an ardent fan.

By 1883, Remington was a part-owner in a sheep farm in Kansas, which didn’t prove successful for him but it gave him the opportunity to start sketching frontier life. His first published sketch depicting a Wyoming cowboy was published in Harper’s Weekly in February 1882.He ultimately returned to New York but returned often to the West and between the years 1885 and 1913, his drawings appeared in 41 magazines. He also created paintings that struck a chord with viewers, capturing both the frontier’s dramatic narrative and its quiet telling moments.

Unexpectedly, the artist became a sculptor in the mid-1890s after mastering the basics of clay modeling from his friend and sculptor Frederick W. Ruckstull. Remington’s iconic work, The Broncho Buster, his first sculpture, was copyrighted in October 1895 and the following March, he began casting sculptures at Roman Roman Bronze Works in New York.

Remington’s The Outlaw realized $120,000 at Clars Auction Gallery in November 2010. Photo courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and Clars Auction Gallery.

The most desirable Remington sculptures are what are known as lifetime casts, those made under his supervision before his death in December 1909. “Remington took an active role in every cast ensuring it was of the highest quality,” said Alissa Ford, Director of Western & California Art /American Art at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. She noted his earliest works were produced by the Henry-Bonnard Bronze Co. and used a technique called sandcasting, He later switched to Roman Bronze Works which then used a lost wax cast process that he felt achieved a higher grade of detail.

“Bronze was his favorite medium because he knew it was the most durable and would last an eternity. Aware that his sculptures would transcend many generations, Remington kept diligent records of every cast he made. This has allowed historians to properly authenticate and track his work. Henry-Bonnard casts are extremely rare to find, as are early Roman Bronze Works casts, which make them more valuable,” Ford said. “While his lifetime casts can achieve millions of dollars, the posthumous casts produced after his death (and during his wife’s lifetime) still attain six-figure prices. ‘Broncho Buster’ was Remington’s first sculpture and most popular subject. That said, ‘Coming Through the Rye’ was the star this year, selling for over $11.2 million [at Christie’s in May 2017] and setting the record for the artist and being deemed as one of the most expensive historic bronzes to sell by an American artist.”

This circa 1902 cast of The Broncho Buster, #17, bronze with dark brown patina, 23 1/8 inches tall, realized $346,000 at Heritage Auctions in November 2016. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

The market for Remington has consistently been strong. “While the market fluctuates for many artists, Remington seems to be one of the few that continues to attain high prices for top quality pieces. They are incredibly rare and difficult to acquire so collectors are willing to invest when one comes onto the market,” Ford said. “Quality, rarity, and historical importance will secure strong value even as the market changes for historic works.”

Danica M. Farnand, Director, Department of American Indian Art, Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, Ohio, echoed her sentiments, “It has been my experience that there is a solid market for his work, including the early recasts from the Roman Bronze Works.  Recasts are affordable and more readily available than the lifetime castings.”

Both art specialists also agreed on Remington’s enduring appeal.

“I find Remington’s sculptures to be powerful, classic renderings of a romantic view of the American West,” Farnand said. “ I think this is why his work continues to be sought after by collectors and Western Art enthusiasts.”

“I have always admired Remington’s sense of perfectionism and dedication to excellence in his sculptures,” Ford said. “He compulsively worked and reworked casts and would oversee production until the sculpture met his expectations. I appreciate how Remington’s sculptures are dynamic and remarkable in their range of motion. While these bronzes are heavy in weight and strong in subject matter, the overall impression of the sculptures feel lightweight and energetic.”

“Many of his works are secured by only one delicate contact point to the base, which gives the sense that the figures are moving rapidly and forcefully through space. Personally, my favorite bronze by Remington is ‘The Rattlesnake,’ which depicts a cowboy and his horse rearing against the sudden appearance of a rattler.”

Even though the frontier life that Remington sculpted in exacting detail is long gone, his bronzes elegantly document man’s struggles to tame the American West.

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