The Fall of the Cowboy

The Fall of the Cowboy, Frederic S. Remington, 1895

The Fall of the Cowboy, Frederic S. Remington, 1895

Ole Man Winter holds most of the country in his icy grip. It has been bitterly cold in Saint Louis. Intellectually, I know that there are many colder places in North America than here, but I can viscerally feel the chill here. This makes the cold here much more real. I know that talking about the weather is small talk, but I wanted to write about this wintry weather, it has become so omnipresent, so oppressive.

As is my want, I first began casting about for an image, a focal point, a rock upon which to build this post. I recalled Remington’s “The Fall of the Cowboy”. I had photographed this painting several years ago while visiting the Amon Carter Museum, in Fort Worth. The following text is part of the museum’s description of this artwork:

Beneath leaden skies of gun-metal gray, two cowboys have halted their horses in a bleak wintry landscape. One of them has dismounted to remove the rails of a fence gate so they can pass through. The whole scene is infused with the slow rhythms and somber tones of an elegy; a lament for something that has gone forever.

Remington’s motivation for creating this somber picture was not driven by some Arctic high pressure system. Remington, like his friend Theodore Roosevelt, loved the Western United States and worked to popularize the West in this period. They both viewed the cowboy as the last great figure of America’s frontier history; hardy and self-reliant, but doomed to extinction in the wake of civilization’s steady progress. This sounds rather bleak and full of foreboding. Much like the iciness of this cold snap that has affected me.

While visiting Yellowstone, Remington met Owen Wister, a writer for Harper’s Monthly. Wister wanted to describe the American “Cow-Puncher” through a series of articles for the magazine. Remington agreed to illustrate his series. One of these illustrations by Remington was the painting shown here. This mythic image was soon immortalized in the pages of Wister’s “The Virginian”, which was later published to wide acclaim and is arguably the first western novel.

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