Fight for the Waterhole
Frederic Remington, American, 1861–1909
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 27 1/4 × 40 1/8 in. (69.2 × 102 cm) Frame: 38 1/2 × 51 1/2 × 2 1/8 in. (97.8 × 130.8 × 5.4 cm)
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
The Fight for the Waterhole
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Perhaps no other artist is as closely identified with the depiction of the American West as Frederic Remington. Born in upstate New York in 1861, the son of a newspaper editor and Civil War soldier, Remington was fascinated with the tales his father told of battles and soldierly camaraderie. He briefly studied art at Yale University and at the Art Students League in New York. In 1881, Remington took his first trip to the West. The following year, he moved to Kansas where he bought and ran a sheep ranch.
In 1884 Remington returned to New York, where he began selling his sketches to publishers of illustrated magazines. He soon became a leading illustrator of Western subjects and one of the most sought-after magazine illustrators in America. His reputation was such that when Theodore Roosevelt wrote a series of articles on ranching and hunting in the West, he chose Remington to illustrate them.
During the 1880s, Remington turned his attention from illustration to painting and sculpture. Fight for the Water Hole is an excellent example of the work for which he is best known. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has one of the largest and most important collections of Remington’s work.
In Fight for the Water Hole, the lavender blue sky and rugged, far-off mountains seem to rest gently on the smooth, yellow, arid plains, while the focal point of this work is daringly centered on the canvas. The work depicts cowboys defending a very small amount of water as Native Americans surround them, commenting on the bravery required for life and the bleak existence for men in the West. We are witnesses to the five men defending the precious water. A white puff of smoke indicates that one gunman has fired his rifle, while another figure appears to be reaching back, as though needing more ammunition. The two figures in the foreground are also caught in mid-action. The one on the left is carefully preparing to fire, while the other is caught in a stare, perhaps startled by the bullet that barely missed him as indicated by the quick, long strokes of beige in the dirt a few feet away.
Fieldwork was important for Remington, and he frequently made notes about color and quick sketches in preparation for his paintings. The snapshot camera was invented near the start of his career, and Remington took advantage of this new device. He often made photographs of subjects he would later put on canvas, recording patterns in the landscapes. He did not freely admit to basing his paintings on photographs, but he did in fact use a photograph for this painting. To make a painting, Remington would substantially complete the landscape outdoors, then return to his studio to add the figures. He often worked out a composition on a preliminary canvas, drawing the figures separately, tracing them onto tissue paper with red conté crayon, and finally positioning his tracing on the final canvas. Remington also made compositions directly on canvas with charcoal.
The Impressionist movement, a late-19th-century movement which broke away from tradition and introduced a new way of painting, also greatly influenced Remington’s work, particularly his handling of landscape. Note in Fight for the Water Hole Remington’s use of quick, short, brushstrokes and the importance of light and color. His early career as an illustrator provided a good background in creating quick sketches to capture a moment, and his Yale instruction gave him confidence as a painter.
In 1903 the popular magazine Collier’s Weekly agreed to regularly publish Remington’s work, which meant financial stability, greater artistic freedom, and an opportunity for Remington to widen his audience. Fight for the Water Hole, the second painting commissioned for the magazine, illustrates a change in Remington’s work, with its bolder color palette and looser brushwork. Remington originally titled this painting A Water-Hole in the Arizona Desert, but the editors of Collier’s gave the painting its current name. Neither title names a specific water hole, nor is it known whether this scene was based on an actual historical event.
- What is happening in this scene? Identify all the characters and construct a narrative of their interaction.
- Moving from background to middle ground to foreground, make an inventory of all the colors you can see in Remington’s landscape.
- Pick one character in this scene, and empathize with them. What are they thinking in this moment? What are they touching, hearing, smelling, tasting? What emotions are driving them?
- Consider the point of view of the artist. Where is he standing? How is he participating in this narrative?
- Compare the inventory of colors you made to your idea of the desert, or to a photograph of a desert landscape. How does Remington’s representation compare? Why do you think he chose to paint such an arid landscape with so many colors?
- Do you think that this is a documentary image (i.e., an image of something that truly happened and that Remington witnessed?) Why or why not? Use visual clues and group discussion to puzzle it out.
- Remington was closely influenced by the Impressionist movement, and incorporated their loose, brushstroke-heavy style of painting into his own work. How would the mood and message of this painting be different if he had chosen a different style, such as realism or cubism?
- Remington was working from New York City when he painted this, as he was with the bulk of his work. He made landscape paintings, and often inserted figures from photographs taken in the West. How does that change your understanding of this work? Why do you think Remington made so many images of the West for a Northeastern audience?
• This narrative painting, or painting that tells a story, is an ideal impetus for a writing project. Consider the sequence of events that led to this scene and hypothesize what happened one hour before and one hour after the scene captured in Fight for the Water Hole.Have the students illustrate their essays. Remind the students to title their works of art.
• What does Fight for the Water Hole tell you about the American landscape during the turn of the century? Where are all the signs of civilization? How would this story change if this painting included a train and signs of a town? How would the message be different?
Resources Available to Order
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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.