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The Wild West

Confession: I've recently become obsessed with Lonesome Dove. No, not the mini-series starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones (although that's pretty great too), but the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on which it was based. For the uninitiated, Lonesome Dove is a sweeping western epic that chronicles the journey of a group of Texas rangers herding cattle from Texas to Montana in the mid-1870s. I'll spare you more details, but thinking about the book recently led me into the museum's galleries for Western American Art and straight into the paintings and sculptures of Frederic Remington.

Remington studied art at Yale but moved out West in the early 1880s. He worked as a ranch hand and traveled, observing Indian customs, ranch life, cowboys and cattle, the railroads, and soldiers on horseback patrolling America's expanding frontier. In the late 1880s, he worked as an illustrator for Harper's Weekly and accompanied the U.S. Sixth Cavalry as it pursued the Northern Plains Sioux Indians across the Badlands. To protect the regiment from Indian ambush, commanders would often send single cavalrymen far ahead to draw Indian fire, hence the title of the painting above, The Advance Guard, or The Military Sacrifice.

In the brightly lit foreground, Remington paints a soldier who has just been shot by an unseen Indian. He has already dropped his gun and looks as though he's still reeling from the impact. Dust kicked up by other bullets is visible just behind the horse. And behind him, another soldier has abruptly turned to warn the troops of the imminent danger.

Remington is known for such heroic portrayals of Western life as this scene, and so I can't help but think about how that matches up against the not-so-romanticized tales of Western life that come out of Larry McMurtry's books. Or even the not-so-romanticized portrayal of Western and Native American life from other artists in the same gallery. I imagine that the "truth" is probably somewhere in the middle, although I'd guess that life for soldiers (and Texas rangers) on the frontier was more difficult and much less heroic-seeming than we can imagine.

But since not all of you might care about Lonesome Dove, maybe a more interesting question is, what art reminds you of books, or vice versa?