Frederic S. Remington (1861–1909)
The Grass Fire, 1908
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
The deliberate use of fire by the Indians on the grasslands of the northern plains was very common. At certain times of the year, particularly in the spring, it was a distinct advantage to set fire to the dead, dry stalks left from the previous year to stimulate the growth of nutritious new grass. The Indians knew that the herds of buffalo, which they depended upon for their food and shelter, would be attracted to the tasty young blades of grass that grew quickly in the burned-out areas. However, there were other reasons for setting fire to the grasslands, which had more to do with warfare than with ecology. Here Remington shows a war party setting a fire under cover of night, with the intention of bringing misfortune either to the nearby camp of a rival tribe, or possibly the tribe’s hunting grounds. Remington skillfully utilizes the contrast between the dark background and the warm, ruddy glow of the firelight on the stealthy figures to emphasize a sense of drama to the scene. This painting was included in a highly successful exhibition of Remington’s work that opened at the Knoedler Galleries in December 1908. “Frederic Remington sounds a purely American note,” one newspaper critic noted. “His color is purer, more vibrant, more telling, and his figures are more in atmosphere.” The New York Times agreed, adding that “the types of western character are like what we see in imagination when we call to mind a western scene.” Such observations were what the artist wanted to hear. Following the exhibition he worked feverishly to paint what he termed “that very illusive thing,” and he was hard on himself when he felt he had not succeeded. He grew to thoroughly dislike much of his earlier work. “I would buy them all if I were able and burn them up,” he wrote morosely in his diary.