About the Work of Art:

Frederic Remington (1861–1909)
The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
1961.230

 

Frederic Remington (1861–1909), The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1961.230

 

 

 

 

 

As early as the mid-1890s, the cowboy way of life was beginning to come to an end. The expansion of the railroads into cattle country had eliminated the need for the long trail drives to the railheads of Kansas and Missouri. The great expanses of public grazing lands had been opened to homesteaders who had enclosed pastures with barbed-wire fences. After more than a decade of painting the cowboy lifestyle as a symbol of spirited freedom, Frederic Remington began to realize that the West he had idealized in his art was vanishing. Out of this awareness, he produced one of his most memorable paintings, The Fall of the Cowboy.

At his friend Remington’s insistence, writer Owen Wister published an article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine titled “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher.” It was part of a series on “the whole adventure of the West,” with Remington as principal illustrator. The Fall of the Cowboy was among several illustrations that eventually accompanied the author’s work. Remington had advised Wister to write his piece about the story of the passing of the open-range cowboy. “Don’t mistake nice young men who amble around wire fences for 'the wild rider of the Plains,’ ” Remington warned.

The bitter winters of 1885 and 1886 had exacted a devastating toll on the northern herds. The advent of barbed wire in 1875 foretold the day when the cowboy would devote his hours not to riding the line and the roundup, but rather to opening and closing gates, digging postholes, and growing and harvesting hay.

The melancholy associated with the demise of a celebrated American figure is captured here with empathy and reverence. Beneath a sky of gunmetal gray, two cowboys have stopped in a remote, wintry landscape. One of them has dismounted to open the gate so they can pass through.

Remington—like President Theodore Roosevelt, another great promoter of the West in this period—viewed the cowboy as the last figure of American frontier history: hardy, self-reliant, and tragically doomed to extinction in the wake of American progress. This mythic image was to be immortalized with the publication of Owen Wister’s influential novel, The Virginian, in 1902.

 

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