Frederic S. Remington (1861–1909)
The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection
During a trip to Yellowstone Park in the summer of 1893, Remington met Owen Wister, a writer from Philadelphia who was at the beginning of a notable career. The two established an instant friendship; Wister was on assignment for Harper’s to write a series of articles on “the whole adventure of the West,” and Remington was its potential illustrator. In the series of projects that followed, Wister provided the writing and Remington furnished the sketches along with plenty of advice. In October 1894 Remington wrote: “Say Wister—Go ahead please—make me an article on the evolution of the puncher—the ’passing’ as it were. . . . Don’t mistake the nice young men who amble around wire fences for the ’wild rider of the plains.’” For Remington, the real cowboy was already a thing of the past. Wister’s article, titled “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher,” finally appeared in the September 1895 issue of Harper’s Monthly, accompanied by a number of illustrations by Remington. One of these was the painting shown here. Beneath leaden skies of gunmetal gray, two cowboys have halted their horses in a bleak wintry landscape. One of them has dismounted to remove the rails of a fence gate so they can pass through. The whole scene is infused with the slow rhythms and somber tones of an elegy; a lament for something that has gone forever. Remington, like his friend Theodore Roosevelt, also a great popularizer of the West in this period, viewed the cowboy as the last great figure of America’s frontier history; hardy and self reliant, but doomed to extinction in the wake of civilization’s steady progress. This mythic image was soon to be immortalized in the pages of Owen Wister’s The Virginian, published to wide acclaim in 1902—arguably the first western novel.