January 18 marked the birthday of an inventor little known to most art historians. This from the Writer's Almanac:
“It’s the birthday of Joseph Farwell Glidden, born in Charleston, New Hampshire (1813). For centuries hedgerows and stone walls were the only way to keep livestock contained; in the American West, cowboys followed herds of cattle to make sure no harm came to them. Glidden saw an exhibition in which a wooden rail with nails protruding from it kept livestock at a distance. He rigged up an old coffee grinder to twist strands of wire around each other, then clipped off the protruding ends to make barbs. A number of men filed patents for similar barbed fences at the same time, and there was a tremendous fight, but Glidden won, and his barbed wire factory made him one of the country’s richest men. That was the end of the Wild West. Long cattle drives came to an end, and longhorn cattle began to disappear; it wasn’t necessary to breed cattle tough enough to survive out on the range anymore.”
Glidden’s invention actually relates very closely to one of my favorite paintings in our collection: Frederic Remington’s The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895.
The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 1961.230
In 1895, Remington's friend Owen Wister published an article in Harper's Monthly titled "The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher." A number of illustrations, including a printed version of Remington’s painting, accompanied the article. Remington advised Wister to write about the gradual end of the customary cowboy way of life—open ranges without fences were becoming a thing of the past thanks to inventions like Glidden’s. The painting has a somber, wistful tone, conveyed by the muted colors of a winter scene, in keeping with the artist and author’s intent to mourn the passing of mythic cowboy traditions.
Remington’s picture elegizes the passing of a fundamental way of life. Though it relates on the surface level to a specific aspect of culture that was of its time and place—the transformation of the Wild West open range into a new type of ranching practice—to me the painting has always conveyed deeper significance as a timeless gesture toward endings and beginnings of all sorts—from shifts in weather manifested through stormy skies, to seasonal change as shown in the crisp white snow, to symbolic death and reinvention evoked by the hanging heads of the horse and the sturdy industry of the cowboys.
The signal of a great work of art is when it makes us pause, feel something, and contemplate ideas bigger than ourselves. The Fall of the Cowboy is a moment of quietude in the career of an artist ordinarily preoccupied with ceaseless drama and action.