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Artist in the Backfield
Before the artist Frederic Remington began chronicling the life of the cowboy, he tried another rough-and-tumble pursuit: Yale football.

Mention the name Frederic Remington and most people think of the paintings and sculptures that documented—and helped mythologize—life in the American West. But Remington’s first published artwork, which appeared in a Yale newspaper, reflected another of the artist’s passionate interests: football, which Remington would both play and depict in paintings and magazine illustrations. Remington’s subsequent fame as an artist would help bring him what his time at the University did not: a Yale degree.

In the summer of 1878, the 16-year-old Remington impulsively decided that he could not follow the conventional educational route that his comfortable upstate New York family had planned. Instead, he enrolled in the fledgling Yale School of the Fine Arts. Remington was one of only 7 men in a class of 30 at the school, which was both the first art school at an American university and the first coeducational school at Yale.

Early on, the artist met Poultney Bigelow, editor of the Yale Courant, who invited Remington to contribute illustrations. His first published artwork appeared in the November 2 issue, part IV of the series, “College Riff-Raff.” The full-page cartoon depicts an injured football hero recuperating in his room, with bandaged foot, arm in a sling, and head swathed in bandages.

But Remington, burly and athletic himself, was not content merely to caricature the new sport. By the fall of 1879, he had become a member of the team, which drew players from the professional schools as well as the College.

The scoreless Thanksgiving game with Princeton that ended Yale’s championship season proved to be Remington’s last. Due to the illness and death of his father, Remington did not return to school after the holidays. In 1881, he went West and spent four years as a cowboy, ranchman, and scout. Those experiences formed the foundation for Remington’s preeminent success as a painter, sculptor, and illustrator of Western frontier life.

Less well-known, however, are Remington’s spirited renderings of sports and athletics. More than 20 of his football illustrations were published between 1887 and 1900, mainly in Harper’s Weekly, and mostly depicting Yale players. Remington’s love of the game and his ability to portray its strategy in motion contributed to football’s growing popularity as a spectator sport in the years before action photography.

One of Remington’s finest football paintings, published in Harper’s on November 29, 1890, with the caption, “Foot-Ball—Collision at the Ropes,” is part of Yale’s Whitney Collection of Sporting Art. Accompanying an article on the then-traditional Yale-Princeton Thanksgiving match, the painting depicts a group of players frozen in action. Above them a single rope in front of the seemingly endless rows of dark-suited men standing behind it accentuates the stark contrast between the worlds of the agile players and the spectators.

In 1900, the dean of the art school, John Ferguson Weir, proposed that Remington be awarded a Yale degree, although the former student had completed only half of the three-year course of study. Some biographers have described Remington’s degree as honorary, but the faculty minutes indicate that he was eligible for an earned one. On May 8th, it was voted to “accept Mr. Remington’s offer to substitute for the usual thesis a manuscript story of his own that had already been published and in addition the gift of one of his works.” Of 14 Remington works at Yale, two were donated by him in 1900: the painting The Scream of Shrapnel at San Juan Hill and the bronze sculpture The Wounded Bunkie. Later that year Remington became the eighth recipient of the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Yale, and one of the School’s most distinguished graduates.  the end


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