The purpose of art is to provoke thoughts and evoke associations in the beholder. Some works attain this objective through the beauty of their images, whereas others rely on different strong emotions. Art has many sources, and, while some paintings focus on the depiction of actual events, other pieces reflect the artist’s imagination and worldview. Frederic Remington is one of the artists who managed to combine both of these aspects when creating his works in the Old Western setting. Many of his paintings depict the Wild West, along with the people living there, including cowboys and Native Americans. Indian Fire God is an interesting work, showing the mystical aspect of Native American traditions through the prism of a white person who did not particularly like their culture. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the Indian Fire God painted by Frederic Remington in terms of the author’s artistic touch and thematic elements.
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The work, which is the focus of the present research, is titled Indian Fire God (or The Going of the Medicine-Horse). The painting itself is included in the Appendix of the present research paper. It was created by Frederic Remington in 1897, and oil on canvas serves as the mediator for this work (Indian Fire God (The Going of the Medicine-Horse). Frederic Remington). The theme of this painting correlates with the major direction of Remington’s work, which is the Wild West setting. Indian Fire God shows four Native American men in a large tent. They have gathered around a bonfire in order to perform a ritual related to fire, hence the name of the work. Three men are standing on the opposite side of the bonfire, and there is a small, animal-like figure between them, allegedly used in the ritual. The fourth man is sitting in the foreground, holding a pipe and looking at the bonfire in awe. All four men are dressed in the traditional attire of Native Americans of that time.
The middle part of the painting also forms its central image, which is a dark horse emerging in the smoke, which is coming from the bonfire. It is relatively small and black, while the color of its mare is lighter. The horse’s head and back are well-defined, whereas the lower parts of its body, namely its legs, are not shown in the painting. Its eyes are open wide, and smoke is coming from its nostrils, connecting it to the Native Americans. The men contemplate the horse, which, apparently, is the Fire God, as implied by the work’s title. The painting seems black-and-white, and the artist puts an emphasis on the characters. Simultaneously, the background is mostly dark aside from a small bright spot at the top of the canvas. The contrast creates a strong impression, contributing to the mysticism of this work. Such a stylistic choice evokes strong associations with old, forbidden rituals of ancient tribes, inviting the viewer to speculate about the depicted event.
As history suggests, the exploration of Northern America began with the European colonization of the New World along the East Coast. When there was nothing left to discover, it was natural for the American civilization to expand in the Western direction. The exploration of this region is a major page of the country’s history, as it inspired an entire genre of books, films, and artworks. Today, many people are fascinated by westerns, but it was not always the case. By the end of the 19th century, the culture of the Old Wild West was quickly fading away, and Frederic Remington was one of the people who desired to capture it (Hough and Remington 3). Interestingly, the artist himself came from the Eastern part country, as he was born in the state of New York (Frederic Remington). Remington became reported after the death of his father, and his work took him to the so-called Wild West. The future artist was immediately captivated by the free spirit of the West, as he later wrote in his diary. Following his fascination, Remington dedicated the rest of his life to art.
As a matter of fact, Remington inspired the modern perception of the Wild West in many ways. He used different media to express his ideas, which is why he is known as both painter and sculptor. The American Wild West was the central topic of all of his works, and people who lived there served as key elements. Remington’s talent was quickly recognized by the contemporary community, and he became one of America’s most prominent illustrators by the mid-1890s (Frederic Remington). As Remington matured, his artistic expertise also developed, and he demonstrated an incredible understanding of the Wild West culture. He masterfully played with the contrast of light and shadow, translating tension and mysticism on canvas (Frederic Remington). The artist was affable, which made him welcome in different groups of the West, including cowboys and Native Americans (Hough and Remington 7). Such a close acquaintance with this culture contributed to the authenticity of Remington’s works. In other words, the artist knew his topic and setting very well, and this expertise contributed to the quality of his work, which continues to mesmerize the audience of the 21st century.
Work Analysis and Interpretation
Frederic Remington’s fascination with his subject matter translated into productiveness, which allowed him to produce a sufficient number of works to remain in the history of art. Overall, Remington’s legacy comprises over three thousand paintings and sketches, twenty-two bronze sculptures, two novels, and over one hundred articles. Accordingly, it is possible to say that some of his works lack proper coverage by the media or experts. In fact, Indian Fire God (or The Going of the Medicine-Horse) cannot be considered one of Remington’s most popular paintings, which explains a shortage of information regarding it. Nevertheless, the work is done along the general lines of Remington’s approach to art. Similar to the majority of his pieces, Indian Fire God (or The Going of the Medicine-Horse) develops the topic of the Wild West and its people. Remington wanted to grasp the disappearing spirit of the era, which he managed to do, according to Theodore Roosevelt (Frederic Remington). Rapid industrialization and the development of transcontinental transportation was altering the landscape of the West, and people’s lifestyle was changing, as well.
Thematically, Indian Fire God is related to the culture of Native American tribes. At the time of his work, the tribes were confined to their reservations by the United States government, inevitably losing some aspects of their culture. In the context of the Wild West, Native Americans were responsible for the mystical side due to the spiritual nature of their customs and traditions. The painting in question reflects this notion in many ways, including the title. At first sight, Indian Fire God introduces the beholder to a supernatural entity, which is portrayed by a dark horse emerging from the smoke. Spirits and gods play a pivotal role in the Native American lore, and Remington willingly exploits this topic. The dark tones of the painting contribute to the overall mystical impression, as the background and the horse’s features remain obscured by shadows. This stylistic choice may symbolize the idea that regular people cannot fathom the nature of the Fire God and Native American rituals. Remington may have wanted to preserve the mysticism of the event, and the style of the painting serves this purpose.
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At the same time, Indian Fire God remains open to other interpretations due to the ambiguous nature of the painting. As said by Hough and Remington, the artist never demonstrated any particular affection to Native Americans. While he recognized their importance for the culture of the Old West, he did not oppose reservations. Remington usually saw Native Americans as an integral element of the era’s cultural landscape, which is why he devoted a considerable portion of his work to them. As for Indian Fire God, it is possible to spot smoking pipes in the painting. It is possible that certain substances induced hallucinations in the form of a dark horse emerging in the smoke. However, all four men are looking directly at the Fire God, despite only one of them having the pipe. Overall, Remington’s work remains open for interpretation, as suggested by its mysticism.
From a thematic point of view, Indian Fire God (or The Going of the Medicine-Horse) corresponds to Remington’s fascination with the Wild West. As discussed earlier, he was interested in all elements of this multi-faceted period of American history. This particular piece deals with Native Americans and their rituals. In Remington’s work, they are responsible for the mystical aspect of the Wild West, as dictated by their centuries-old traditions and customs. Remington depicts this theme through the use of traditional attire worn by all four characters. Additionally, the fire has been a pivotal component of many cultures and religions throughout history. This crucial role is fixed both in the title and in the painting itself, as t bonfire is placed in the very middle of the frame. Only the part, which is illuminated by the bonfire, is clearly visible, and the background remains in the shadow. Lighting also affects the audience’s perception of the horse figure, as, from certain points of view, it is hunclear, whether the Fire God is actually a product of imagination.
In conclusion, the life and work of Frederic Remington are inseparable from the Wild West. The artist was always fascinated by this period with all its diverse aspects and elements. His work Indian Fire God (or The Going of the Medicine-Horse) reflects the mystical side of the Wild West embodied by Native American tribes. Remington utilizes the theme of their ancient customs and traditions, creating this eambiguous, yet impressive work. Stylistic elements, such as lighting and perspective, contribute to the overall mystical perception. The painting mesmerizes the beholder, revealing itself from new perspectives and exuding a strong aura of mysticism. Indian Fire God (or The Going of the Medicine-Horse) is an excellent example of Frederic Remington’s work, which has contributed to the preservation of Wild Western culture as it is known today.
“Frederic Remington.” Buffalo Bill Center of the West. 2020. Web.
“Indian Fire God (The Going of the Medicine-Horse). Frederic Remington”. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 2020. Web.
Hough, Emerson and Remington, Frederic. Remington. Parkstone International, 2012.
Tolles, Thayer. “Frederic Remington (1861–1909).” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010. Web.