Theodore Roosevelt was an unlikely cowboy. Frederic Remington was an unlikely sculptor of the West.
Roosevelt the Cowboy
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)was a wealthy New Yorker by birth and upbringing. A nearsighted and asthmatic child, he overcame much of his frailty by sheer will and family encouragement. His physical weaknesses helped channel his interest in natural science however, since it could be enjoyed via his collections of plants and rocks and small critters. By the time he was twelve, he was a bona fide taxidermist with a great love of the outdoors.
Theodore had many varying interests, and his Harvard education led him into politics (Republican) and the writing of history.
When his first wife died in childbirth at only twenty-three, a distraught Theodore went to the Dakotas to heal his grief and sow the seeds of his own greatness.
He immediately astounded the locals with his Abercrombie and Fitch outfit, his thick spectacles on a silk cord, his Harvard-Eastern accent, and his quaint way of speaking. They didn’t know what to make of him,until he bought a small ranch and a herd of cattle, and proved his mettle, riding long hours, eating “grub”, sleeping under the stars, shooting varmints and rounding up the bad guys. They loved him. They also respected him. The fact that his ranch failed was never held against him.
Some historians claim that Theodore Roosevelt would never have achieved what he did if he hadn’t “gone west.”
Frederic Remington: Western Sculptor
Frederic Remington (1860-1909) was also a New Yorker, albeit upstate, with as fine a pedigree as Roosevelt. He could trace his lineage to both George Washington and western artist George Caitlin. Remington displayed a superior talent for art as a youngster, along with decidedly unacademic inclinations. He much preferred the outdoors, athletics and drawing.
Nevertheless, he managed to go to Yale. For one semester. He spent more time with athletic programs than studies. Returning home, he admitted to his general laziness and decided to live off his income, and perhaps do a little newspaper reporting and illustrating. In short, the gentleman’s life.
At nineteen, with vague thoughts of buying a ranch or something similar, Remington went west. He invested in ranching, but those efforts failed. He preferred the comforts of indoor life, and his neighbors thought him lazy. He began sketching the Wild West right before the wildness of it disappeared forever with the railroad and the settlers. He sold a few paintings to the locals, and sent some sketches back east to the newspapers and magazines. His true calling was becoming clear.
Realizing that his art was still unpolished, and perhaps with some newfound maturity, a 24-year-old Remington returned to NY, studied at the Art Students League, improved his technique, and by 25 was a regular contributor to several magazines eager to capture the feel and experiences of the Wild West.
Roosevelt and Remington: Common Bonds
Remington was making a serious name for himself in the art world. Harper’s, Leslie’s and Century magazines, the cream of the publication world, gave him plum assignments. He was making a living through his art. He was also beginning to collect the artifacts and colors and sinew for what his art would become.
His biggest break came in late 1886 when he was commissioned to provide more than 80 illustrations for Theodore Roosevelt’s Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail, to be serialized in Century Magazine prior to book publication. TR, also an ex-cowboy and rancher (but never lazy!) and the young and brilliant artist became friends for life.
Remington’s career was beginning to soar. He was hailed as one of America’s greatest painters. He won prizes at the Paris Exposition. At 29, he had a one-man show. In his thirties, he had discovered sculpting. His prowess as well as his enthrallment with it came as a surprise, but his instant success with bronze casts elevated him to a whole new status.
Meanwhile, TR’s career was also rising, and falling, and zig-zagging, but always on an upward level. TR just didn’t quite know what career he wanted. Politics? Writing? Or the natural sciences he had loved since he was a boy. He decided to do everything.
Rough Riding with TR and Remington
When a potential war with Spain was churning, Frederic Remington was in his late-thirties; not only an artist-sculptor of renown, but also one of the country’s leading sketch-journalists. Roosevelt was just shy of forty.
TR, having decided to focus on politics, and maintain natural science and writing as side-interests, was now Assistant Secretary of the Navy, itching to prove himself in some other way than behind a desk. The War with Spain would do that.
TR, gathered a volunteer regiment of cowboys, Ivy League college fellows and New York City policemen to form the Rough Riders. He was commissioned Lt. Colonel, and took them to Cuba. Remington was sent there by the newspapers to sketch and report the action. Both men performed their respective assignments brilliantly, certainly in the sense that it would bring them exceptional fame.
The Broncho Buster
The “bully little war” with Spain was mercifully short, and the Rough Riders et al were mustered out in Montauk, Long Island some six months later. Due to the high rate of yellow fever, malaria and assorted tropical diseases, the army was quarantined there for several weeks.
When the Rough Riders were formally disbanded, Colonel Roosevelt was surprised when his men chipped in and presented him with one of the original bronze casts of Frederic Remington’s most famous western sculptures: The Broncho Buster. Thousands and perhaps millions have been cast in reproductions. An original casting would be worth well into six figures today.
TR was deeply moved by the token of affection and esteem, as well as the choice of gift. It was placed prominently in the great North Room at Sagamore Hill, and he always declared it to be one of his most prized possessions.
It is still there today. If you visit Sagamore Hill, you will see it.
Corry, John A. – A R0ugh Ride to Albany: Theodore Roosevelt Runs for Governor – Fordham University Press, 2000
Brands, H.W. – TR: The Last Romantic – Basic Books, 1997
McCullough, David – Mornings on Horseback – Simon & Schuster, 1981