The year 1895 was a significant one for Frederic Remington. He met Owen Wister, future author of The Virginian, the first Western novel (the early model for Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour), with whom he would remain lifelong friends. He produced his first bronze sculpture, Broncho Buster, published his first book of collected stories, Pony Tracks, and painted his first acknowledgement that the Old West had truly ended. The Fall of the Cowboy was one of five illustrations for Wister’s essay The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher, published in Harper’s Monthly in 1895.
With the invention of a machine in 1873 that produced cheap and durable barbed wire, the open range disappeared as stockmen and farmers partitioned land for their own commercial enrichment. Remington’s somber winter landscape, where the cowboy is forced to dismount to open the gate of the barbed wire fence, suggests the death of the open range and the end of the cattle drives.