Nowhere in Frederic Remington's oeuvre is the cowboy more celebrated than in his first bronze subject, The Broncho Buster. Originally conceived in 1895, The Broncho Buster, depicting a cowboy breaking in a wild horse, was an immediate success, symbolizing all that was triumphant and heroic of the West. By the 1890s, Remington was a renowned illustrator, painter and an accomplished writer but never complacent as an artist, he wanted to expand his repertoire of talent to include something "in the round as well as the flat." (fig. 1)
In 1894, Remington was completing an illustration for a story by Owen Wister to be illustrated in Harper's Monthly, entitled "The Second Missouri Compromise." The scene depicts a group of eight men sitting and standing around a table in a complex interior scene with the focus being a cowboy drawing his gun at the central group. "Remington, sketching without models, realized that this arrangement obscured the details of the background and dwarfed the secondary figures. He quickly rubbed out his first attempt, moved the cowboy backward and the lesser figures forward. Remington intuitively visualized his figures from all sides, not just as flat images, as would be expected of an illustrator. [Augustus] Thomas said, 'Fred, you're not a draftsman; you're a sculptor. You saw all around that fellow, and could have put him anywhere you wanted him. They call that the sculptor's degree of vision.'" (as quoted in P.J. Broder, Bronzes of the American West, New York, 1974, p. 131) The final illustration, "'Don't Hurt Anybody,' Said Specimen Jones" proved to be the catalyst for Remington's introduction and experimentation with bronze and would result in the artist's first sculptural endeavor and ultimately the artist's most popular model, The Broncho Buster.
The subject of the cowboy was always a central and important theme to Remington's work. The artist had written in 1895 that "with me, cowboys are what gems and porcelains are to some others." ("Cracker Cowboys of Florida," Harper's Monthly, April 1895, p. 329) Remington's keen observations and unabashed love for the cowboy and his way of life found direct expression in many of his published drawings and paintings. He also maintained an extensive collection of photographs that contained related images of rearing horses and cowboys that he drew upon for developing the intricate modeling found in his sculptures (fig. 2). The Broncho Buster, a subject derived from Remington's cachet of works devoted to the rearing horse and rider, reflected the artist's incredible attention to detail combined with the ingenious rendering of a specific action, intense movement and sublime balance.
"Augustus Saint-Gaudens was among those who saw the sculpture before its casting. His endorsement of the work of art in the foundry's promotional brochure appears to be the earliest reflection of the mutual respect that existed between Remington and the dean of American sculpture. Their relationship explains some of the innovative patinas on some of Remington's sculptures. Saint-Gaudens exerted a powerful influence on several other artists who have come to be called 'western sculptors,' including his own assistants James Earle Fraser and A. Phimister Proctor. That the most classicizing and sophisticated American sculptor of the period supported the rugged verities of Remington's western themes goes far in undermining the self-imposed and artificial category of 'western sculpture.' Primarily a descriptive term, it has often been incorrectly used to cut off a group of American sculptors and their work from the broader developments of American and European sculpture. Remington was not solely a 'western sculptor' but an 'American sculptor,' and his achievements should be evaluated in a broader context than has previously been attempted." (M.E. Shapiro, Frederic Remington: The Masterworks, St. Louis, Missouri, 1988, p. 187)
Having found tremendous success with his early attempts with sculpture, in 1901, Remington made the decision to switch from the sand casting method used by the Henry Bonnard Foundry to the lost wax method favored by Roman Bronze Works. In doing so, Remington was able to explore greater artistic freedom in re-modeling his bronze concepts. The present work is an unnumbered wooly chaps cast and most likely produced around cast number 33, making it a lifetime work that embodies the attention to detail Remington sought in his finest bronzes (fig. 3). "The rider's smooth leather chaps were intermittently replaced in 1905 with a textured wooly pair. The leggings, perhaps the best example of the rich texturing possible through lost wax, have been located on eight Broncho Buster castings." (M.D. Greenbaum, Icons of the West: Frederic Remington's Sculpture, Ogdensburg, New York, 1996, p. 56) Most significantly, and reinforcing the un-matched quality of this specific cast, the present bronze is the only known example to be branded with the artist's initials (fig. 4).
"The Broncho Buster was a great success. Within three weeks of the copyright, Arthur Hoeber wrote in Harper's Weekly: 'He has handled his clay in a masterly way, with great freedom and certainty of touch, and in a manner to call forth the surprise and admiration not only of his fellow craftsmen, but of sculptors as well. Mr. Remington has struck his gait, and that, much as he has accomplished in an illustrative way, more remains for him to do, and other roads are open to him. With youth, health and energy, who shall say how far he may not go? And his is a distinctly American field.'" (As quoted in P.J. Broder, Bronzes of the American West, New York, 1974, p. 133)
The Broncho Buster was the first statue in America of a rider on a bucking horse, an image that would be often imitated in the following years and continues to the present as a popular and representative depiction of the West. Although he experienced a short-lived career, Remington's popularity and acclaim was wide even during his lifetime. As a testament to the endurance and popularity of his imagery, cast 31 was presented by the Rough Riders to Theodore Roosevelt in 1898. Roosevelt would later say of Remington: 'he has portrayed a most characteristic and yet vanishing type of American life. The soldier, the cowboy and rancher, the Indian, the horses and cattle of the plains, will live in his pictures and bronzes, I verily believe, for all time." (Bronzes of the American West, p. 124)