Last week, while researching an article on Frederic Remington, the American artist renowned for his “Wild West” paintings and bronze sculptures, I discovered four paintings of the Pontiac.
In fact, I’ve known about this famous artist’s contact with and love for Quebec for years. That’s because George Toller, a longtime reader of The Equity and of my column, lent me some books on Remington several years ago.
Like many of us, Mr. Toller takes particular notice when Pontiac is mentioned, so when he visited the Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg, New York he was amazed to find a West Quebec connection.
Remington was a renowned outdoorsman. He was also a superb horseman, who commented that he would like his epitaph to read, “He knew the horse.”
Remington did know the horse, and he lovingly depicted it as companion to and workmate of the American cowboy, cavalry, the Buffalo hunters, and plains Indians. His outstanding illustrations, paintings and bronzes survive as highly detailed examples of how the horse was used by Buffalo soldiers, cowboys and native scouts.
The artist was also a canny businessman insofar as these works were concerned, for he noted “Cowboys are cash.” For example, his first and very popular bronze statue, The Bronco Buster, was recast 276 times, meaning that 276 copies of the cowboy astride a bucking bronco exist, that are cast from the original mold.
It wasn’t only Remington’s bronzes that were popular: he also painted in oils. These depicted not only scenes from the Wild West, but also of Cuba, where he travelled in 1898 while covering the Spanish-American War for the New York Journal, as their journalist and illustrator. It was the first combat he had witnessed, and it so disgusted him that he lost his romantic idolization for the cavalry. He noted in his journal that the war was full of “broken spirits, bloody bodies, hopeless, helpless suffering.” His oil painting The Charge of the Rough Riders depicts these aspects of battle – as well as Theodore Roosevelt on his horse, encouraging his men forward.
But back to the Pontiac. Not only were Remington’s Wild West paintings and bronzes popular, so were his paintings of the northern woods. As an outdoorsman, Remington enjoyed canoeing, fishing and hunting, and much of his work celebrates life we know well here in Quebec.
Antoine’s Cabin shows a log cabin in the woods, with a figure clad in a white Hudson’s Bay coat outside its front door, enjoying a contemplative smoke amid a soft snowfall. It’s a self-portrait, so we can catch a glimpse of the artist himself, obviously comfortable in the deep woodland setting that was painted here in Quebec, while Remington was moose hunting.
In fact, a moose head that is hanging on the wall of the museum is one that he shot while at Antoine’s cabin. It used to hang in his studio, so it was obviously a treasured trophy.
Remington enjoyed exploring Quebec and, in 1909 purchased a share in the Pontiac Game Club, originally constructed in May 1899. In his book We Went to Heaven Before We Died, author James A. Baker wrote, “In the Department of Crown Lands of the Province of Quebec is filed the certificate of incorporation of the Pontiac Game Club granted October 7, 1898. Its original forty-six square miles of hunting and fishing privileges were soon thereafter extended to approximately one hundred eighty square miles.”
Remington was invited to become a club member and his share in the club, number 32, was dated that year. Writes Baker, “It seems doubtful that any man could have been proposed for membership in the Pontiac Game Club who possessed better outdoorsman credentials than Frederic Remington, internationally renowned painter and sculptor.”
Remington’s diary details his journey to the Club with his wife Eva. “August 2, 1909 – Took 8:15 stream side wheeler up the Ottawa. Saw soldier camp at Petawawa – heard big gun practice. Got off at Tapp’s Wharf at 10:30 and found two teams. One took my baggage and two canoes and the other us. WE drive 18 miles over backwoods roads and arrived nervously exhausted. Found Irving, John J. and the party. Club a fine comfortable jumble of log cabins on a beautiful lake.
Raised in Canton, New York, Remington grew up enjoying the proximity of both the St. Lawrence River and the Adirondack Mountains. The Pontiac wilderness attracted him, and he set about painting its scenery as well as hunting and fishing.
There are four Pontiac paintings exhibited in the Ogdensburg museum. One, Pontiac Club, Canada (1909, oil on board) depicts the old clubhouse on Somerville Lake with its tumble of outbuildings. These burned on 19 May 1932 after a kitchen fire got out of control. The other paintings show river and lake scenes that are unidentified other than by the word “Pontiac” being in their title.
Sadly, 1909 saw the death of Remington the day after Christmas, at age 48. Taken suddenly ill, he was operated upon on his kitchen table, but died due to complications from peritonitis. His sore stomach had been acute appendicitis, and his doctor couldn’t save him.
So passed a keen outdoorsman who enjoyed exploring our Pontiac Region. More than this, Remington was a figure who was “larger than life” in his own time, for he depicted realistic and historic images of a life that was already lost. Nostalgia sells, and he knew it. But beyond this, Remington left an important, realistically depicted legacy of our North American past.
Although he only spent roughly four years in the American west, he was scrupulous while there, recording what he observed in written journals and sketchbooks. Just like many of our Pontiac artists of today, he took photographs of what he saw, as well as collecting a variety of items, which served as models for his art. Authentic voice was critical to him, and it’s thanks to Remington that today we can look at his body of work and catch a glimpse of the way life once was.
It’s too bad that the original Pontiac Game Club burned down in 1939, for the flames destroyed not just the structure, but also the clubhouse records. The rooms that Eva and Frederic Remington used no longer exist, nor does any guest book they may have signed.
But fortunately, at Ogdensburg’s Frederic Remington Art Museum, we can enjoy his paintings of Pontiac.
Getting there: Frederic Remington Art Museum, 303 Washington St., Ogdensburg, New York 13669; Tel: 315-393-2425; Fax: 315-393-4464; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.fredericremington.org/
Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer who enjoys hearing from her readers. She particularly wants to thank George Toller for this fascinating lead, and particularly welcomes any information concerning the history and environment of Pontiac. Your comments are welcome.