More than any other artist of his generation, Remington's art conveys the action and drama of the American West, to which he devoted almost his entire artistic career. He depicted the West in illustrations, paintings, and in bronze, and even today his images are among the most famous of Western icons.
Painted in 1900, The Signal (If Skulls Could Speak) represents one of the enduring themes in Remington's art, the Native American, painted here as a solitary figure on a horse. He has abruptly pulled his mount to a halt and waves a buffalo robe above his head. 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. Against this generalized back drop, the figure is characteristically painted in greater detail and with touches of color, including the rider's beaded shirt and moccasins of white, pink, blue and green, his bronzed face and the details of the his gun and halter. The horse rears in alarm. With its head turned, eyes wide and nostrils flaring, it stands balanced by Remington on just a single hoof. Finally the artist casts the figure's gaze behind the viewer, suggesting the unseen presence, outside the composition, of his fellow tribesmen.
The painting's alternate title, If Skulls Could Speak emphasizes the artist's prominent inclusion in the right foreground of a bleached buffalo skull. It is a detail included by Remington 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 noted by numerous art historians, the buffalo skull offers a clear symbol of nostalgia and of the passing and near extinction of one of the West's most enduring symbols. As a compositional element in The Signal (If Skulls Could Speak), it also offers a poignant reminder of the Native American's own dwindling prospects for the buffalo hunt at hand, and ultimately his tribe's survival.
Well before 1900, Remington recognized that Native American culture had largely disappeared, and certainly understood the role played by the dwindling herds of bison. While implicit in The Signal (If Skulls Could Speak), he explicitly addresses this theme in his earlier painting, Conjuring Back the Buffalo (1892, private collection), which depicts a solitary, standing Native American, surrounded by five buffalo skulls arrayed at his feet, raising a sixth skull over his head while chanting and entreating the spirits.
Emphasizing the significance which Remington ascribed to this subject, two years after painting The Signal (If Skulls Could Speak), he recreated the composition in bronze. Remington copyrighted this unique cast (National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, fig. 1) in 1902 with the following description, which underscores its debt in its composition and details to the painting: "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." (M. Greenbaum, Frederic Remington's Sculpture, Ogdensburg, New York, 1996, p. 95)
As a theme in Remington's art, the solitary figure on horseback appears in compositions over his entire career. His horsemen are as varied as Mexican gendarmes and vaqueros, cavalrymen, Comanches and cowboys in numerous illustrations and paintings and likewise appear in his sculptures such as The Broncho Buster, The Cheyenne, The Outlaw, and The Rattlesnake. Undoubtedly they represent the artist's enduring fascination with frontier types and rugged individuals: "I go to the simple men with the bark on," he once famously remarked. (as quoted in Brian W. Dippie, The Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection, Ogdensburg, New York, 2001, p. 18)
Brian Dippie amplifies the importance of Remington's focus on the figure, in particular soldiers, pioneers and settlers, writing that "Remington particularly 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. But frontiering was finished by the 1890s, and with it the mountain men, prospectors, soldiers, scouts and free-riding cowboys, who along with Indians and Mexicans, peopled his art. Remington sighed at their passing, and made himself their pictorial historian." (The Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection, p. 13) Especially in the first part of his career, before he turned in his later years to painterly and atmospheric effects, subject matter was of the greatest importance to Remington. As Peter Hassrick writes, "These matters of light, color, and spatial handling serve as secondary tools in Remington's early work. He was a narrative painter, and in his stories the human figure was primary. His interest lay in people and the part they played in the flow of history. Turning to the frontier where native expressions of individuality blossomed, he recorded these individuals in paint with freshness, humor, and a sense of independence." (Frederic Remington, New York, 1973, p. 28)
While the subjects of his early works are invariably painted with directness and an eye for telling, realistic details, "...his was a candor enriched with a tinge of the romantic...," (Frederic Remington, p. 27) It is no contradiction to say that Remington succeeded through his re-invention of the West, and his creation of characters, imagery, and icons that conformed with his ideas of what the West should look like. Brian Dippie offers this revealing anecdote: "In an amusing exchange with Francis Parkman over the coveted assignment to illustrate a new edition of The Oregon Trail, Remington rejected the actual likeness of Henry Chatillon, Parkman's companion in 1846, claiming that Chatillon's photograph made him look more like a fishmonger than a frontier trapper. So he shaped Chatillon to his own image of a mountain man instead--and Parkman approved. Now there was 'the real old mountain type,' Reminton told another correspondent on receiving a photograph of the fabled Jim Bridges. It was Remington's sense of what was and was not appropriate to a type that gave his art its power. His types peopled his West until, for many years, there were no others." (The Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection, p. 19)
In Remington's earlier compositions, Native Americans nearly always appear as adversaries. Surrounding his central protagonists, these Indians are sometimes seen or unseen, sometimes near at hand or distantly circling in the background, but they are invariably a threatening presence. Especially after 1900, his depiction of Native Americans began to shift, adapting a more sympathetic view. He also began to move away from frontiersmen and soldiers as his primary subjects. In his last years, "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." (The Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection, p. 22)
In his writings, Remington's comments about Native Americans could be alternatively harsh or generous. Of Apache's, his comments are generally critical, even derogatory. Of others, such as the Papagos, he could be quite sympathetic, describing them in his typically clipped style as "brave, industrious, sober, and chastegood horseman, good with riatta (rope)." "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. 'The one thing about our aborigines which interests me most is their peculiar method of thought,'" Remington wrote. "'With all due deference to much scientific investigation which has been lavished upon them, I believe that no white man can ever penetrate the mystery of their mind or explain the reason of their acts.'" For Remington, and indeed for nearly all of his contemporaries, there would always be an unbridgeable gulf between the Indian and Anglo-American cultures. (as quoted in Frederic Remington, p. 38)
In most of his works of the West, the horse was ever-present. "Invariably," notes Hassrick, "Remington placed the horse in juxtaposition to man. Never did he make the horse a symbol of man, and never did he paint the horse with human characteristics, a common failing of many animal painters. Remington regarded the horse as inherently graceful and its movements, even in slow gaits, as suggestive of speed, agility, and strength." (Frederic Remington, p. 28) Remington captures just this grace and power in The Signal (If Skulls Could Speak), in which he also uses the high horizon line to provide a backdrop that further emphasizes the artist's central subject, the Native American and his rearing horse.
To aid in the accurate depiction of horses and other animals, the artist made many sketches and photographs. As discussed by Emily Neff, "Remington's studio aids included a notebook titled 'Book of Animals &c.,' with numerous photos and illustrations of horses in various kinds of motion, and hundreds of photographs, most of which he took himself, on similar themes. Countless anecdotes in the Remington literature indicate his desire to be identified with horse imagery. The most famous of these expressions is his friend Julian Ralph's remark that Remington 'said he would be proud to have carved on his tombstone the simple sentence, "He knew the horse."'" (Frederic Remington, Princeton, New Jersey, 2000, p. 87)
Among the other studio aids used by the artist, none were as important to his work as his extensive collection of Native American and Western paraphernalia which lent to his art a degree of accuracy--for Remington a matter of high importance. In The Signal (If Skulls Could Speak), for instance, Remington dresses the figure in a shirt from his own studio collection (now at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming, fig. 2). Julian Ralph once described the glorious clutter of the artist's studio: "...the trophies of his many visits and errands to the West hang all about the walls and litter the floors delightfully. Axes, clubs, saddles, spears, bows and arrows, shields, queer water-tight baskets, quaint rude rugs, chaparrajos, moccasins, head-dresses, miniature canoes, gorgeous examples of beadwork, lariats, and hundreds of sorts of curios from the desert and wilderness complete a collection that has been a mine of profit and a well spring of pleasure to him..." ("Frederic Remington," Harpers Weekly, XXXV (January 17, 1891), p. 43, as quoted in Frederic Remington, p. 31)
While clearly reliant on these aids, Remington also exerted much effort in converting his studio artifacts, sketches and photographs into art. "I can beat a Kodac [sic]," he once wrote, "--That is get more action and better action because Kodac's have no brains--no discrimination...The artist must know more than the Kodac." (letter from Remington to Mrs. Sage, dated April 22, 1892, in the collection of Budge V. Lee, Fort Worth, Texas, as quoted in Frederic Remington, p. 30)
As part of this transformative process, Remington made many trips to the West, the last of which took place from 1899 to 1900, just prior to creating The Signal (If Skulls Could Speak). The primary purpose of this last journey 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." (J. Ballinger, Frederic Remington's Southwest, Phoenix, Arizona, 1992, p. 73) Here, in The Signal (If Skulls Could Speak), the artist uses strong color to render the clear, dry desert air. To further strengthen the overall composition, he also uses his instinctively bold compositional sense. "Big art," Remington would say a few years later, "is a process of elimination...cut down and cut out--do your hardest work outside the picture, and let your audience take away something to think about--to imagine." (E. Wildman, "Frederic Remington, the Man," Outing, XLI (March 1903), p. 715, as quoted in Frederic Remington, p. 47)
The Signal (If Skulls Could Speak) also dates from the moment around 1900 when the artist's technique begins to shift from his crisper realist style toward a more painterly one. Most art historians cite as the catalyst for this change the disillusion he felt on this last trip, which he shared in a letter 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, undated [November 18, 1900] in the Robert Taft papers, as quoted in Frederic Remington) 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 of them to a more Impressionist style of painting. As he suggested to Howard Pyle, his art would owe its success most of all to imagination.
At this time, he also achieved notable successes. In 1900, Yale awarded him an honorary degree in the Fine Arts and a few years later he landed a long term contract with Collier's Weekly. Remington also included The Signal (If Skulls Could Speak) as the frontispiece in a well-received book, Done in the Open (fig. 3), published in 1902. Scribner's also awarded him a contract, and he continued to develop his artistic style. In time, he would consider his transition to a fine artist complete, and reveled in the positive reviews for his 1909 show (his last) at his dealer, Knoedler's. In his diary he wrote: "The art critics have all come down--I have belated but splendid notices from all the papers. They ungrudgingly give me a high place as a 'mere painter' I have been on their trail a long while and they never surrendered while they had a leg to stand on. The 'Illustrator' phase has become background."
Among the critics reviewing the Knoedler show was the renowned Royal Cortissoz, whose commentary could serve not only as a memorial tribute to Remington, who died unexpectedly in December 1909, at the age of 48, but also as a critical assessment of his best Western works, and of The Signal (If Skulls Could Speak) in particular. "Under the burning sun he has worked out an impressionism of his own," wrote Cortissoz. "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, XLVII (February 1910), p. 192, as quoted in Frederic Remington, p. 47)
Remington not only depicted the West, he transformed it; as he hinted throughout his career, his goal was not merely to record, but to work toward "big effects...full of color." (Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection, p. 24) From the start, his works embraced an ever-present tension between verity and artistic vision. Rather than to seek the purely authentic, notes James Ballinger, "Remington knew he embellished the lives of those he depicted in his art. It did not concern him that at the same time he was touted as the 'realist' of the West." (Frederic Remington's Southwest, pp. 53-54) Because of the power of his art and his artistic mastery of the material, Remington's depiction of the West in painting and in sculpture became the definitive model for all who followed. As one art historian concludes: "His West became the standard version." (Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection, p. 18)
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) Assumed by many to be just a chronicler of the West, Remington instead found a source for inspiration. It is his artistic legacy which has become in time America's chosen vision of the American West.