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Frederic Remington (1861-1909)
Frederic Remington (1861-1909)
Frederic Remington (1861-1909)
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The Legend of the West: Iconic Works from the T. Boone Pickens Collection
Frederic Remington (1861-1909)

The Buffalo Signal (If Skulls Could Speak)

Details
Frederic Remington (1861-1909)
The Buffalo Signal (If Skulls Could Speak)
signed and dated 'Frederic Remington-/1900/Copyright 1903 by Frederic Remington' (lower right)
oil on canvas
40 x 27 in. (101.6 x 68.6 cm.)
Painted in 1900.
Provenance
Private collection, Bronxville, New York.
Hammer Galleries, Inc., New York, 1966.
Daniel Phillip and Barbara Hoover, Massillon, Ohio, by 1974.
Brit Brown, Wichita, Kansas, 1982.
Wunderlich Gallery, Chicago, Illinois.
Private collection, Texas.
Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico, by 1988.
Private collection, Arizona, acquired from the above.
Christie's, New York, 29 November 2007, lot 103, sold by the above.
Acquired by the late owner from the above.
Literature
F. Remington, O. Wister, Done in the Open: Drawings by Frederic Remington, New York, 1902, frontispiece illustration.
H. McCracken, Frederic Remington: Artist of the Old West, New York, 1947, p. 146.
H. McCracken, The Frederic Remington Book: A Pictorial History of the West, Garden City, New York, 1966, pp. 92, 276, no. 116, illustrated.
C.N. Gregg, "The Art of Frederic Remington," Connoisseur, vol. 165, no. 666, August 1967, p. 271, illustrated.
P.J. Broder, Bronzes of the American West, New York, 1974, pp. 372, 400, no. 476, illustrated.
The Kennedy Quarterly, vol. 15, June 1977, no. 3, p. 183, cover illustration.
D. Baker, Artists in our World: Frederic Remington, Chicago, Illinois, 1977, p. 48, illustrated.
Arizona Highways, Phoenix, Arizona, April 1985, no.4, vol. 61, pp. 12-13, illustrated.
T.W. Luke, Shows of Force: Power, Politics, and Ideology in Art Exhibitions, Durham, North Carolina, 1992, pp. 63-64 (as The Signal (If Skulls Could Speak)).
P.H. Hassrick, M.J. Webster, Frederic Remington: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings, vol. II, Cody, Wyoming, 1996, pp. 617, 722, pl. 62, no. 2514, illustrated.
M.D. Greenbaum, Icons of the West: Frederic Remington's Sculpture, Ogdensburg, New York, 1996, pp. 95-96, fig. 5, illustrated.
R. Argyle, Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2009, p. 39.
Exhibited
Oshkosh, Wisconsin, The Paine Art Center and Arboretum; Minneapolis, Minnesota, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Williamstown, Massachusetts, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Frederic Remington: A Retrospective Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, August 1-December 31, 1967, n.p., no. 43, illustrated.
New York, Wildenstein Gallery, How the West Was Won: Paintings, Watercolors, Bronzes by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, May 22-June 22, 1968, n.p., no. 9, illustrated.
Cody, Wyoming, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, The Art of Frederic Remington: An Exhibition Honoring Harold McCracken, May 1-September 1, 1974, p. 1, no. 1, cover illustration.
Los Angeles, California, Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum; Youngstown, Ohio, Butler Institute of American Art; Denver, Colorado, Denver Art Museum; Indianapolis, Indiana, Eiteljorg Museum; Roanoake, Virginia, The Roanake Museum, The West Explored: The Gerald Peters Collection of Western American Art, November 1988-April 1990, p. 59, 87, pl. 38, illustrated (as The Signal (If Skulls Could Speak)).
Santa Fe, New Mexico, Gerald Peters Gallery; Chicago, Illinois, Mongerson-Wunderlich, Frederic Remington, May 3-July 31, 1991, pp. 78-79, illustrated.

Brought to you by

Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Specialist, American Art

Lot Essay

More than any other artist of his generation, Frederic Remington’s work embodies the spirit of the action and drama of the American West. His iconic paintings, illustrations and sculptures remain the definitive model of the Old West for the writers, artists and filmmakers who have followed. The Buffalo Signal (If Skulls Could Speak) represents one of the most enduring themes in Remington’s art, the Native American, painted as a heroic solitary figure on horseback. Painted in 1900, the work incorporates the realistic detail and compelling narrative of Remington’s reputation-making illustrations, while also epitomizing the vibrant play of color and brushwork of the acclaimed Impressionist easel paintings of his mature career.

Remington made his first trip to the West in the summer of 1881, traveling through Montana. Working for Harper's, the artist was given his first formal assignment in 1886 to travel to Arizona to report on the campaign to capture Apache chief Geronimo. Many trips West followed, and Remington brought home a significant collection of Native American clothing, weaponry and other artefacts, which added to his personal experiences to lend his art a high degree of accuracy. “Yet,” writes Peter Hassrick, "there was a mystery about the Indian which Remington could never fathom, no matter how intense his study, no matter how frequent his observations…Remington wrote, ‘…I believe that no white man can ever penetrate the mystery of their mind or explain the reason of their acts.’” (Frederic Remington, New York, 1973, p. 38)

In the artist’s earlier compositions, Native Americans nearly always appeared as adversaries, a threatening presence circling Remington’s primary subjects of frontiersmen or soldiers. However, around 1900 when the present work was painted, his depictions began to take on a more sympathetic view. Native Americans became the enduring heroes, rather than villains, of his visual tales. “With the Indian wars over, Remington discovered that he admired the vanquished almost as much as the victors. In defeat, they attained a certain ‘nobility of purpose,’ and a measure of respect, even sympathy, followed on that recognition. Indians figured more prominently in his later paintings than soldiers. Defeated, they were the story.” (B.W. Dippie, The Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection, Ogdensburg, New York, 2001, p. 22)

The Buffalo Signal (If Skulls Could Speak) reflects this new perspective, depicting an Indian buffalo scout dramatically posed on horseback signaling his tribesmen. Remington depicts his hero just as he has abruptly pulled his mount to a halt to wave his buffalo robe overhead. The horse rears in alarm, balancing on just a single hoof with its head turned, eyes wide and nostrils flaring. The landscape is parched, painted only broadly in earth tones to suggest the arid country of the American Southwest, and the sky is a cloudless blue. The figure is painted with more refined and vibrant detail, including the rider's beaded shirt, which was based on one in Remington’s own studio collection (now at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming). Moccasins of white, pink, blue and green stand out against his bronzed skin and the harsher lines of the gun and halter.

Two years after painting The Buffalo Signal (If Skulls Could Speak), Remington recreated the composition in bronze. Only one unique cast (National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma) was executed before the mold was broken. Remington copyrighted the sculpture with the following description: “The Buffalo Signal. Indian on horse with raised buffalo hide in right hand; and resting on left arm. Horse with three feet on ground and one fore foot raised. Indian head turned slightly to left as if looking backward.” (as quoted in M. Greenbaum, Frederic Remington's Sculpture, Ogdensburg, New York, 1996, p. 95)

The present painting was also published in 1902 as the frontispiece of a well-received volume of Remington’s work, Done in the Open, under the alternate title If Skulls Could Speak. This title emphasizes the artist’s prominent inclusion in the right foreground of a bleached buffalo skull. Remington included the skull motif in a number of other works, such as his bronze The Wounded Bunkie (1896) and his paintings Missing (1899, Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma) and On the Southern Plains (1907-08, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). As Wanda M. Corn writes, “American artists domesticated the old master tradition of bones…and converted them into regional shorthand for the old American West…its relentless heat and physical demands and its wildness and lack of cultivation…” (The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935, Berkeley, California, 1999, pp. 272) More specifically, the skull of a buffalo acknowledges the decline of Native American culture by the time Remington painted these works, in large part because of the dwindling herds of bison. Corn explains, “by 1900 any image of the buffalo, represented as living or dead…encoded a melancholy message of death and extinction. Anglo-European culture linked that same message with the fate of the American Indian…representing the buffalo and the Native American as similarly ‘doomed’ and ‘vanishing.’” (The Great American Thing, p. 273) Indeed, alongside the present work’s 1902 publication, a poetic caption by Owen Wister underscored the connection between the sad fates of the buffalo and Native American as they lost their lands: “...Peace, brother brainless, peace and cease! For you and I have known/A sweeter world than ever they’ll find in this land they call their own.”

As Native Americans were facing a period of transition, so was Remington as an artist. In his early career, “He was a narrative painter,” explains Hassrick, “and in his stories the human figure was primary. His interest lay in people and the part they played in the flow of history.” (Frederic Remington, p. 28) Then, he took his last trip to the West in 1899-1900 and was disenchanted by just how much the Old West was fading away. He wrote to his wife Eva, “Shall never come west again—it is all brick building—derby hats and blue overalls—it spoils my early illusions—and they are my capital.” He signed it “Frederic the Past.” (letter from Remington to Missie, November 18, 1900, Robert Taft papers) Gone was the West he had loved and painted. Replacing it would be a view of the West informed by his recollections and past work, and his transformation from a crisper realist style toward a more painterly approach.

With this new outlook, a primary focus of Remington’s last journey West was to work on his color sense. Writing home, he enthused, ‘I am dead on to this color and trip will pay on that account alone—.” (as quoted in Frederic Remington, p. 39) On his return, he likewise wrote to his friend, the illustrator Howard Pyle, taking pains to point out that his artistry still took precedence over technical considerations: “Just back from a trip to Colorado and New Mexico. Trying to improve my color. Think I have made headway. Color is great and it isn't so great as drawing and neither are in it with imagination. Without that a fellow is out of luck.” (as quoted in J. Ballinger, Frederic Remington's Southwest, Phoenix, Arizona, 1992, p. 73) His later oils combining his keen draftsmanship and imagination with this new sense of color solidified Remington’s reputation as a painter, rather than a mere illustrator, and are among the most celebrated works of his acclaimed career.

Here, in The Buffalo Signal (If Skulls Could Speak), Remington uses strong color to render the clear, dry desert air. The uniquely crisp light of the West permeates the scene, bringing the figure into sharp focus against the vigorously applied brushwork of the cliffs and sky. As renowned critic Royal Cortissoz praised of Remington’s final exhibition in 1909, “Under the burning sun he has worked out an impressionism of his own. Baked dusty plains lead in his pictures to bare, flat-topped hills, shading from yellow into violet beneath cloudless skies which hold no soft tints of pearl or rose, but are fiercely blue when they do not vibrate into tones of green. It is a grim if not actually blatant gamut of color with which he has frequently to deal, and it is not made any the more beguiling by the red hides of his horses or the bronze skins of his Indians. In past times he has made it shriek, and, even now, he finds it impossible to lend suavity to so high a key. But that, of course, is precisely what no one would ask him to do.” (“Frederic Remington: A Painter of American Life,” Scribner's Magazine, vol. XLVII, February 1910, p. 192)

Indeed, Remington not only depicted the West, rather he transformed our collective imaginations about the region. As he hinted throughout his career, his goal was not merely to record, but to work toward “big effects...full of color.” (The Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection, p. 24) Hassrick writes that “he left behind a Western legacy in paint and bronze which is as remarkable in its longevity as in its faithfulness,” and concludes that “it has remained a valid, candid, and vigorous statement directly from the heart of a man who was himself a citizen and student of the frontier.” (Frederic Remington, p. 50)

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