Frederic Remington is perhaps the most iconic artist of the American West, and his bronze sculptures capture the essence of the American frontier. Remington’s figures of cowboys and horses seem to be light years from Green Street here in Greenpoint, but his most iconic sculptures were cast locally at the Roman Bronze Works and could never have been created without the help of Greenpointer Riccardo Bertelli.
Oddly enough, the iconic western artist was not even a westerner. He was born in upstate New York in 1861; however his father, a Civil War veteran, who had seen the west in his military service, fired Remington’s western imagination. Remington traveled west and decided he would capture the rapidly disappearing frontier.
Today Remington’s sculpture is considered his finest work, but that was not always so. He came to sculpture after first working as a two dimensional painter. In his canvases, Remington repeatedly tried to show movement, but he did not realize that he could more realistically show movement by presenting it in depth. A neighbor, the playwright Augustus Thomas, helped Remington while observing Remington sketching a figure from multiple points of view. He commented: “Fred, you’re not a draughtsman; you’re a sculptor. You saw all around that fellow, and could have put him anywhere you wanted him. They call that the sculptor’s degree of vision.”
Already famous for his illustrations and paintings, Remington pushed into three-dimensional art, bringing Western scenes to life in clay models, but Remington experienced technical problems in casting his very fluid sculptures. Prior to 1900, sand casting was the method used by American foundries to produce bronze sculptures. Preferred for its simplicity and economy, the process uses a firm sand mold prepared from a plaster cast of the artist’s original model, but it also created problems for sculptors like Remington. Using sand casting made it difficult to make changes to the sculpture and to add fine details.
Bertelli set up the first lost wax foundry in America, transforming American sculpture. The lost-wax method uses a malleable gelatin mold, capable of capturing greater detail. It also allows artists to experiment with complex compositions and make changes to wax models prior to casting. Remington immediately realized he could create far better figures with the lost wax technique and he and Bertelli struck up a friendship. From 1900 until his untimely death in 1909, Remington used the foundry on Green Street to create many of his most iconic western pieces. Remington was also trying to transcend the boundaries of sculpture and was pushing the limits of Bertelli’s casting talents. In 1905, he sent a hand-made Christmas card to Bertelli. The sketch shows Remington with the proposed bronze “The Outlaw,” a challenging composition of a cowboy of a bucking steed with its hindquarters raised. “Can you cast him?” the artist asks on the card. “Do you think I am one of the Wright Brothers?” Bertelli responded, but he succeeded nevertheless.
Remington was not the only great sculptor to cast his work at the Green Street foundry. John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum who created Mount Rushmore also cast works there. A client list includes almost all the major sculptors of the start of the twentieth century. Eventually, the foundry moved on to Corona. The building has been repurposed, but still stands. Few people walking by this industrial site have any idea how much great art was produced there.