Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Mere Illustration and Frederic Remington

Last weekend I was cutting it close, taking a couple hours on Friday to go see the Go West! exhibit that ended Sunday. This was an amazing collection from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West showcased at the newly renovated UMFA (Utah Museum of Fine Art) building.

Shoshone Feather Bonnet ca. 1880

The exhibit had paintings, and also Native American bonnets, bags, and clothing. I was amazed as always by intricate bead work and quill work. 

Design made with porcupine quills on a bag

Featured artists included Charles Russell, Thomas Moran, W.H.D. Koerner, Carl Rungius, Albert Bierstadt, Rosa Bonheur, and more. Here are some of my favorite pieces from the exhibit.

W.H.D. Koerner's Madonna of the Prairie

Carl Rungius' In the Foothills (Antelope)

 As I moved through the collection reading the titles and descriptions of the art, I paused by one of Frederic Remington's works. The title of the painting is The War Bridle and the piece was completed late in the artist's career, in 1909. The sign by the painting read in part:
Critics praised this picture for Remington's new style and remarked that it would secure the artist's reputation as a true American painter rather than as a mere illustrator.
Frederic Remington's The War Bridle, 1909

It's a beautiful painting, and it has a more impressionistic feel than Remington's typical realistic style. However, I was taken aback that the body of work he had been producing for years was, in the critic's view, not what made him a "true American painter." Apparently, everything else he produced was "mere illustration." Let's take a look at another painting by Remington.

Frederic Remington's Prospecting for Cattle Range, 1889

Prospecting for Cattle Range was hanging on the wall around the corner. It was a privately commissioned piece Remington painted nearly twenty years before The War Bridle. Is it any less the work of a true American painter?

Detail from Remington's Prospecting for Cattle Range

Remington's skill in composition, drawing, and painting are all visible here. The exhibit also had one of Remington's sculptures. His poses in sculpture are dynamic, gravity defying, and beautiful from any angle. Was not his ability in drawing, painting, and sculpting what made him a true American artist? Funny to read a perspective that without his change of style, he was viewed at the time as a mere illustrator. As if illustration is not art.

Go West! was a wonderful exhibit, and I am glad I had the opportunity to see it. If you missed it, maybe you'll get a chance to go to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming to see these, and many more pieces of art.


  1. It's pretty disingenuous for someone to label a work as "mere illustration" or an artist as a "mere illustrator" and then hang it in a "fine art" museum side by side with other works by others they consider "fine artists" I thought it was sort of hilarious that other "mere illustrators" such as N.C Wyeth and W. Herbert Dunton, and others whose work was widely commissioned as illustration such as Charles Russell and Carl Rungius. I don't subscribe to this idea that illustration art can't be considered fine art. Art is either good or bad, regardless of it's use.

    1. I know the critic's comment was probably contemporary with the painting (early 1900s). I hope the attitude about illustration and fine art has changed. I think that many Norman Rockwell fans would be surprised to find that what he produced would not be considered art under that critic's criteria.

  2. ...Rungius were included in the show....

  3. Glad you got to see this exhibit before it closed! :)