The name Frederic Remington is synonymous with notions and visions of the American West. The artist's unparalleled ability to convey the spirit of the region from which he drew inspiration over the course of his career is immortalized in illustrations, paintings, and in bronze. Today, images by Remington such as the present work are some of the most famous icons and documents of the Old West, telling stories about a period in U.S. history which has long since passed, but lives on in the national imagination.
Painted in 1886, The Flag of Truce in the Indian War is an important example of the artist's early work. The year 1886 effectively marked the start of Frederic Remington's career as an illustrator, a career that would immediately begin to flourish thereafter winning the artist national fame and recognition. That year, after several months' study at the Art Students League of New York, Remington boarded a westward-bound train to Arizona and New Mexico. On assignment from Harper's Weekly, the artist was sent to report on the U.S. army's pursuit of Geronimo, an Apache leader who fiercely defended his people against the advancement of the U.S. government onto their native land. Once Remington arrived in the Southwest, he made the decision not to travel with the Geronimo campaign due to the difficulty of the terrain and the time that it would take, and instead directed his artistic focus predominantly to the various soldiers of the U.S. army he encountered there.
The period during which Remington arrived in the Southwest was beset by great turmoil and warfare. The Indian Wars, an ongoing series of conflicts and bloody struggles over land between the United States army and the region's indigenous population, had been underway for several decades. As the U.S. government expanded into tribal territories, native residents led war parties against the encroachment, resisting the military's attempts, by force and persuasion, to relocate their people to various reservations. The result was brutal warfare on the frontier.
Remington documented with great narrative detail the dramatic events he witnessed on this trip, with frontiersmen and cavalry soldiers at the center of his stories. Rugged, courageous and heroic, Remington's figures were often pictured on horseback and engaged in dramatic action, as in the present work. Brian Dippie notes the importance of Remington's focus on the figure, in particular the frontiersman and soldier: "Remington particulary doted on colorful Western vestiges--the panoply of frontier 'types' that he, like the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, defined a distinctive American character that was short on the niceties but long on self-reliance and courage." (The Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection, Ogdensburg, New York, 2001, p. 13)
Demonstrating Remington's adept ability to capture the essence of an entire story within a singular image, the present work depicts a U.S. soldier on horseback charging valiantly toward an unseen yet unmistakably present foe. In a powerful gesture of reconciliation, the officer holds above him a large branch of a tree, commonly used as a symbol of truce in Native American warfare. Remington's subject fearlessly leads the charge, with the swift gallop of his horse generating a cloud of dust, and his fellow soldiers appearing armed on horseback in the distance. Rendered in strong primary colors with Remington's characteristically skilled brush handling, this scene is not only compelling for the story it tells, but is also visually striking and masterfully composed.
As is characteristic of Remington's early compositions, in the present work soldiers appear as the protagonists, while Native Americans are suggested as adversaries. Surrounding his central subjects, these American Indians are sometimes seen or unseen as in the present work, sometimes near at hand or distantly circling in the background, but they are invariably a threatening presence. Peter Hassrick notes, "Remington's was a Darwinian outlook. He celebrated the contest of Euro-American white forces against an untamed frontier West. His heroes were more symbols of the frontier's demise rather than harbingers of hope for a new life or world." (Frederic Remington: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings, vol. I, Cody, Wyoming, 1996) By deliberately excluding Native Americans from this scene and instead only implying their presence, Remington amplifies the sense of danger potentially facing his hero; a threat imposed by an unknown and mysterious enemy is perhaps the most menacing of all.
These images of the Southwest would prove hugely appealing to American audiences, and within a year of his return to the East, transformed Frederic Remington from a struggling young artist into a well-paid and frequently-employed illustrator. Harper's Weekly published fourteen of the artist's drawings that year, and a number of other publications quickly followed suit including Harper's Young People, Outing, Youth's Companion, St. Nicholas Magazine, and Century. Illustrating and in effect bringing to life popular articles that documented life on the American frontier, these images quickly made Frederic Remington a household name.
The Flag of Truce in the Indian War was the first work that Remington exhibited with the American Water Color Society, included in their annual exhibition of 1887. A pen and ink version of the composition was used to illustrate the work in the catalogue for the show. Remington would go on to exhibit with the Society again the following year, and would continue to do so with frequency throughout his career.
Painted with a gallant sense of pride in the American spirit as well as a keen understanding of the use of color, line and composition in telling a visual story, The Flag of Truce in the Indian War is a quintessential example of Remington's early depictions of the American West which became his hallmark. Because of the power of Remington's images and his artistic mastery of the material, the artist's legacy has lived on well beyond his brief artistic career, becoming the definitive model for all who followed. It is the artistic conception he created which has in time shaped America's vision of the Old West.