Frederic Remington’s iconic depictions of the American West are among the most widely appreciated works in the history of American art. Not only representing the popular interests of the era during which they were created, such portrayals have come to inform our national perception of an entire region and of one of the country’s most enduring personas, the American cowboy. Remington’s most daring and complex sculptural undertaking, Coming Through the Rye has become “etched into popular consciousness in a way that is rare in the annals of American sculpture.” (M.E. Shapiro, P.H. Hassrick, Frederic Remington: The Masterworks, New York, 1988, p. 207) The present edition, cast number 3, completed by 1906, represents one of the last lifetime casts of this seminal sculpture to remain in private hands.
Much of the success of Remington’s best works—those images that have resonated throughout history—derives from his ability to evoke for viewers the drama of the scenes he depicted. In such works, as in Coming Through the Rye, Remington casts the viewer into the middle of the action, demanding that they participate in not only the narrative, but the entire sensation of the scene. His success in achieving this feeling is driven by a head-on perspective that has made his work instantly recognizable, evidenced by celebrated paintings such as Dismounted Fourth Troopers (1890, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts), Dash for Timber (1889, Amon Carter, Fort Worth, Texas), Aiding a Comrade (1890, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas) and The Emigrants (circa 1904, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas). This unmistakable compositional style anticipated the cinematic visions of the Wild West that have followed in Remington’s footsteps, perhaps even contributing to those popular films emerging around the time of the creation of Coming Through the Rye. For example, Edwin Porter’s permeating film The Great Train Robbery of 1903, and John Ford’s Bucking Broadway, released in 1917, feature similar perspectives in cowboy scenes.
Coming Through the Rye is the artist’s most successful effort at his immersive compositional practice in three-dimensional form, and, initially conceived in 1902, lands squarely within Remington’s most effective and prolific exploration of the head-on design. Here, Remington chooses an uplifting, jubilant moment in the lives of some frontier inhabitants, standing in contrast to the majority of his works utilizing this perspective, which tend instead towards dramatic, harrowing subjects and often allude to imminent death or narrow escape. In this way Coming Through the Rye is more closely reminiscent of those clever scenes, often whimsical, traditionally associated with Charles M. Russell, especially evident in In Without Knocking (1909, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas); painted just a few years after Remington completed the present work, the painting could virtually serve as a prequel or sequel to the events unfolding in Coming Through the Rye.
Coming Through the Rye also connects with Remington’s own earlier illustration work, reflecting a similar subject, composition and mood as his drawing The Dissolute Cow-Punchers for the October 1888 edition of Century Magazine and his oil Cowboys Coming to Town for Christmas in the December 1889 edition of Harper’s Weekly. The uplifting attitude of such works was not lost on Remington’s audience, with a Collier’s Weekly writer reporting on March 18, 1905, around the time the present work was created: “Here are four cowboys, wild, harum-scarum devils, shooting up a town from the mere joy of a healthy existence, plus the exhilaration produced by frontier rum! They are dashing down the street, the ponies at top speed, spurning the group beneath their feet – and that is the marvelous part of it – only five of those pattering hoofs touch the earth, and there are eight pairs of them!” (J. Barnes, “Frederic Remington – Sculptor,” Collier’s , vol. 34, no. 25, March 18, 1905, p. 21)
Beyond Coming Through the Rye’s achievement in capturing the spirit of the archetypal American cowboy, adapting the excited gestures of the riders and the actions of the horses’ pace to a three-dimensional work required an enormous technical effort. Remington had initially conceived balancing the unruly group on just five hooves of the horses, but the complexity of doing so eventually convinced him to alter the right-hand figure and add an extra grounding point, with the resulting composition having six of sixteen feet touching the ground. This positioning creates a nearly complete exploration of equine anatomy and motion that bears striking similarities to those of the pioneering English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose own work is often credited for its contributions to the motion picture.
As a work of art, Coming Through the Rye goes beyond anatomical accuracy, however, with Remington’s talents evidenced in the gestures and laborious motions of his equine subjects under the nonsensical weight shifting of their inebriated riders. The extremely high level of detail in the horses’ musculature, the expressions on the cowboys’ faces, their many small accessories and the works multifaceted patina required even further talent on Remington’s part and expertise on the part of his foundry. A technical marvel in the field, Coming Through the Rye was an ambitious collaboration between Remington and Riccardo Bertelli, the founder of Roman Bronze Works, who worked closely with him on the production of his most complex sculptures. The success of their efforts is emblematic of the era in which they worked; the 1900s were a decade of incredible innovation, seeing the first trans-Atlantic radio broadcast in 1902, the incorporation of Ford Motor Company in 1903, the beginning of the Panama Canal in 1904, and the Wright Brothers’ historic flight in October 1905.
Despite the productive partnership between artist and foundry, the casting of the first edition of Coming Through the Rye was certainly challenged by difficulty. In 1902 Remington wrote to author and friend Owen Wister, reporting of his travels from his New Rochelle studio to Roman Bronze Works’ Brooklyn foundry early every morning and of his late return, remarking that he might follow the same routine “until I die or complete the bronze.” Over the next few years, after mastering the model, Remington and Bertelli created just a handful of casts of the iconic sculpture. Finally, in May 1908, the complexity of the bronze and the difficulty of the casting process overwhelmed Remington, and the artist crashed a metal bar down on his original models, writing in his journal, “worked all day on ‘Rye’ – spoiled it and broke wax and plaster model. They got it away from me. I could no longer make it satisfy me.” (as quoted in M.D. Greenbaum, Icons of the West: Frederic Remington's Sculpture, Ogdensburg, New York, 1996, p. 101) Therefore, although there are at least 15 recorded versions of the present work, and two unnumbered prototypes, approximately just eight had been completed prior to Remington’s partial destruction of his model. The present work is one of those few casts from Remington’s original design.
As with other examples of Coming Through the Rye, the present work has two entries within the original Roman Bronze Works ledger books. Cast no. 3 first appears on May 22, 1903, along with an annotation noting $600, and again as ‘Rye Group #3’ on May 1, 1906, with a second payment of $600. The purpose of these two entries, while also noting the inscription of 1905, likely represents the date when a down payment or order was placed for the work and the date when the work was actually sold, in this case via Tiffany & Co., New York.
The sculpture’s expensive $2,000 price tag further attests to the impressive scale and complexity associated with creating Coming Through the Rye. Such a sum proved prohibitive, however, in the early years of the 20th century, and the sculpture initially experienced somewhat limited commercial success. Yet, the achievement of Remington’s image, and its immediate popularity among the public, is evidenced by its reproduction in a heroic scale for both the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904 and the Lewis & Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon, in 1905. Those who did have the funds to purchase the smaller bronze sculpture pursued it in earnest; for example, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., acquired one of the earliest versions, along with an edition of The Mountain Man, making these models Remington’s first sculptures to enter a public institution.
Today, the vast majority of the extant lifetime casts of Coming Through the Rye are in the collections of some of the country’s most preeminent institutions, including: no. 2 in the Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey; no. 4 in the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma; and no. 7 in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming. In addition to these, there are two unnumbered lifetime casts--the previously mentioned cast in the collection of the Corcoran Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and one in the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois. Of the eight authorized works cast after Remington’s death, editions can be found in the Stark Museum, Orange, Texas; the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; the Frederic Remington Museum, Corning, New York; and The White House, Washington, D.C.
Collected by the nation’s leading institutions from the moment it was created, the present work is not only remarkable as a representation of Remington’s talents as an artist, and of the technical virtuosity of Roman Bronze Works, but has truly become an archetype of the American West and of the cowboys that inhabited it. The strength of this sculpture has been appreciated for over a century, influencing generations of artists--storytellers in not just fine art but also the written word and moving image. Perhaps unique to other works of Western Art that came before it, or romantic interpretations that have come since, in its jubilant mood Coming Through the Rye specifically embodies the enduring, optimistic American spirit.