Published: August 19, 2003
In his heyday, Frederic Remington (1861-1909) was considered one of America’s greatest illustrators and the most talented interpreters of the American West. His enormously popular and influential illustrations appeared in a variety of mass-circulation magazines. Until his final decade, the vigor of Remington’s images tended to overshadow his achievements as an artist.
Like other great illustrators – notably N.C. Wyeth – Remington yearned for the respect of the art establishment, which could come only via serious easel paintings and/or sculpture. “Above all else,” Remington authority Peter H. Hassrick has written, the artist “wanted one thing in his career – to be recognized as a painter rather than an illustrator.”
In pursuit of his goal to be accepted as a “fine artist” around 1900 Remington began a series of deeply personal canvases that most interestingly explored the technical and aesthetic challenges of creating night scenes. (Starting in 1895 he also created a number of accomplished, animated sculptures.)
In these new paintings Remington replaced the roaring drama of cavalry charges, the intense color and light of the western plains, and his crisp, linear style with quieter, more reflective subjects, a more muted palette and an impressionistic handling of paint.
Before his premature death, he completed over 70 nocturnal paintings that retained the West as a theme, but offered skilled and imaginative images filled with color and light from moonlight, firelight and candlelight. Drawn from nostalgia for the West he had known as a young man but that had largely disappeared by the turn-of-the-century and replete with ominous, mysterious themes, they were hailed by contemporary critics and the public. The nocturnes won for Remington the critical acclaim as a serious painter that he coveted.
For all their quality and appeal, this is the first exhibition to focus on Remington’s late nighttime paintings. First proposed by Anne Morand, curator of Art collections at the Gilcrease Museum, and organized by Nancy K. Anderson, the National Gallery of Art’s associate curator of American and British paintings, “Frederic Remington: The Color of Night” is one of the most appealing and rewarding American art exhibitions of 2003.
After opening at the National Gallery this spring, the show is on view at the Gilcrease Museum (August 10-November 9) and travels to the Denver Art Museum (December 13-March 14, 2004).
The exhibition is comprised of about 30 of Remington’s finest night scenes, tracing the evolution of his maturing technique and varied subject matter. The accompanying catalog, the first on the subject, is exceptionally attractive and informative.
The man who popularized the Old West was an Easterner, born and bred. He was born in Canton and raised in nearby Ogdensburg in New York’s North Country, the son of a Civil War hero and journalist.
As a youngster Remington dreamed of a military career, but his interest in art and athletics prompted him to attend Yale University, where he studied art with John F. Weir and played on the football team coached by Walter Camp. Following his father’s death in 1880, he dropped out and worked in a series of unsatisfactory clerical jobs.
In 1883, having come into his inheritance, Remington traveled west, where he failed as a sheep rancher and saloon keeper in Kansas. Along the way, however, he pursued his interest in drawing, focusing on western subjects. Although amateurish at first, they attracted the attention of “Harper’s Weekly,” which began publishing them in the mid-1880s.
Before long, Remington established a reputation for skilled, accurate and dramatic renderings of Indians, cavalrymen, cowboys, ranchers and horses and other animals of the American West. It was a theme of great interest to eastern readers. Indeed, many easterners formed their perceptions of the West from Remington’s work.
For over a decade he worked at a feverish pace, visiting sites in the West and creating a large number of illustrations for popular journals. He augmented his standing as an authority on the frontier by writing numerous articles on the subject. The fame and success of the rotund, outspoken eastern cowboy were secure by the 1890s. He became an associate, but never achieved full membership in the National Academy of Design, on the grounds that he was a mere illustrator.
Deciding before he turned 40 that he wanted to be remembered as a serious artist rather than as an illustrator, Remington set out to learn more about painting with color in a looser style. Many of his illustrative images had been executed in muted tones of black, white and grey.
Between 1890 and 1909 he lived and worked in a spacious house in New Rochelle, N.Y., filling a colorful studio with artifacts of the West. He moved in his last year to a new home and studio, an imposing stone structure with expansive grounds, in Ridgefield, Conn. It is extant in private hands.
As a war hero’s son, Remington was keen on seeing military combat up close and personal. He got his chance in 1898 when the US battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor, triggering the Spanish-American War.
Armed with war correspondent credentials, he arrived in Cuba in the summer of 1898 “expecting to witness a grand military spectacle. Instead, he found confusion, incompetence and enormous suffering,” writes Anderson in the exhibition catalog.
Rather than the dramatic cavalry charges he anticipated, Remington found American troops under attack from elusive guerilla fighters. “As he confronted the anxious uncertainty of jungle warfare, Remington’s ardor for combat quickly cooled,” says Anderson.
Having taken cover behind the lines, he missed the battle of San Juan Hill when Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders made their famous charge. Instead of witnessing the pivotal battle, the artist-correspondent observed the terrible suffering of those wounded in combat. Ill with fever, Remington soon left Cuba.
“Matured, sobered, and haunted by this experience of modern warfare, Remington began to explore – in his art – the ramifications of what he had seen,” Anderson observes. In a series of illustrations he conveyed what he had witnessed in Cuba.
During a trip to Montana and Wyoming he returned to western themes on which he had built his reputation, but with works quite different from those he had done before the war. His subject remained the West, but as Anderson puts it, “the prize he sought was recognition as a serious artist rather than as a celebrated illustrator.”
Among the most interesting – and best – of Remington’s postwar paintings are the nocturnes in his exhibition. Understandably, they eventually brought him the artistic respect he sought.
“Layered, complex and technically innovative, they are also profoundly personal works of art,” according to Anderson. “Filled with danger, threatened violence and menacing silence, they mirror – metaphorically – Remington’s experience in war,” she stresses.
Remington appears to have become interested in the idea of nighttime paintings in the fall of 1899 after seeing an exhibition at New York’s Union League Club of works by a California artist who is little known today, Charles Rollo Peters. A James McNeill Whistler fan, Peters admired the expatriate American’s nocturnes and after studying in Europe, he returned to California and started creating moonlit paintings. Sixteen of his night compositions were included in the display that intrigued Remington.
Remington also studied and admired the work of such American Impressionists as Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, John H. Twachtman and J. Alden Weir. Toward the end he examined the symbolist reveries of French painters Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. These influences manifested themselves in the decorative and contemplative feel of Remington’s concluding paintings.
Remington began his experiments with after-dark art based on moonlit sightings from a skiff launched from his retreat, Inglenook Island in the St Lawrence River near his boyhood home in Ogdensburg. Two early nocturnes were deigned to illustrate his novel, “The Way of an Indian.” These transitional works were dependent on the text for their full meaning.
“The spare quality of the landscape [in these paintings] and the lack of surface detail signaled a significant change in Remington’s compositional technique,” Anderson observes. Soon he was turning out works of increasingly technical sophistication, unrelated to written words.
These tentative first experiments in nocturnal images incorporate, as Anderson puts it, “the qualities that [came] to distinguish the mature nocturnes: incomplete narrative, unseen danger, ominous silence and threatening darkness. Rather than answer questions (as Remington’s illustrations often did), the late nocturnes pose questions.”
In “The Scout: Friend or Foes?” (1902-05), for example, an Indian peers from horseback toward low, flat structures on the horizon, uncertain whether they represent friends or foes. The possibility of danger ahead, albeit so far unseen, adds to the drama of the image. It is a technique often employed by Winslow Homer in seascapes and hunting scenes.
A similar note of uncertainty infuses an earlier work, “The Old Stage Coach of the Plains” (1901), in which a candlelit coach, manned by a rifle-toting guard who peers into the darkness, pushes toward the viewer under a starry night sky. It is unclear whether some form of danger lies ahead.
A note of caution also pervades “A Reconnaissance” (1902) showing three cavalrymen, one mounted and two surveying the unknown beyond from the crest of a hill. Moonlight reflecting on the snowy ground adds to the drama of the moment. “A Reconnaissance” sold at Christie’s in 1999 for an artist’s record $5,172,000. A somewhat lesser nocturne, not in the current exhibition, “Scare in a Pack Train” (1908), fetched $1,879,500 at Christie’s last year.
Remington’s new works were warmly greeted by critics, but the artist remained unsatisfied about his ability to accurately convey the colors of night. He felt that he had “worked too long in black and white,” but vowed to get his colors right “if I only live long enough.”
Two of his finest night works, completed that same year (1905), suggest that Remington was too hard on himself. “Coming to the Call” and “Evening on a Canadian Lake” are deftly composed and beautifully painted. The colors are gorgeous. They “confirm that Remington had left behind his illustrator’s concern with detail, pared his compositional elements to a minimum, and engaged his viewer by leaving his pictorial narratives incomplete,” says curator Anderson. The stunning colors – romantic and warm in “Evening” and crisp and appealing in “Coming” – seem just right.
The compelling nature of “Evening” is augmented by the sense that an unknown sound or movement has caught the attention of the stalwart canoers. In “Coming,” the man in the canoe is about to shoot a moose dramatically silhouetted against the glow of a sumptuous sunset. “In both images, Remington created frozen moments of peril,” notes Anderson.
Similarly, in the strikingly lit “Fired On” (1907), an attack from outside the picture frame has prompted a frenzy of activity among men and horses. This memorable frozen moment was the first Remington painting owned by an American museum; it is a prize in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Remington often used light sources outside the picture to illuminate and dramatize night scenes. In this sense, once again, his paintings are close in spirit to those of Homer.
In “The Grass Fire” (1908), for instance, a randomly arranged group of Native Americans are dramatically illuminated by a largely unseen fire, at which they reverently gaze. In “In From the Night Herd” (1907), a kind of poetic elegy to night light, a rider is finishing his patrol around the cattle and is about to rouse his successor.
Almost to the end, Remington continued to fret about how best to convey the effects of night. In 1908, however, he wrote in his diary that he had finally found “how to do the silver sheen of moonlight.: “The Luckless Hunter” (1909) showing a lone, huddled rider mounted on a bedraggled pony bathed in greenish moonlight, reflects Remington’s new-found success. As the unsuccessful hunter braves the rigors of winter, traversing the snowy plain, hunger and starvation – possibly death – seem to hover in the wings.
Remington’s annual one-man show at New York’s Knoedler Galleries in 1908, featuring nine nocturnes, drew critical raves. One critic wrote, “it would be difficult to congratulate Mr Remington too warmly” for his “night scenes.” Noting what a hit the Knoedler show had been, the artist could at last write a friend, “I am no longer an illustrator.”
In “The Call for Help (At Bay)” (circa 1908), one of the stars of the Knoedler display, as well as this exhibition, pale moonlight reveals three terrified horses cornered against a rail fence by a couple of baying wolves. Will help come from the nearby lit-up cabin? Remington offers no resolution, only an “elegantly composed and beautifully painted study of elemental fear,” writes Anderson.
In “Moonlight, Wolf” (circa 1908), one of the most riveting images on view, a lone wolf gazes directly at the viewer. Might the animal attack the viewer? “The threat of danger, an element present in nearly all of Remington’s nocturnes, is now directed out, at the viewer,” Anderson observes.
A kind of cool tension pervades “Shotgun Hospitality” (1908), in which the glow of the campfire highlights a white man sitting calmly with his rifle across his knees as three possibly unwelcome Indians pay him a visit. The outcome of this confrontation is, characteristically, uncertain.
Remington used what he called an “unearthly” light – “the curious yellow glow of a rainstorm” – along with a jagged bolt of lightening and a torrential downpour to animate the hyperactive horses, riders and thundering cattle in the highly dramatic “The Stampede by Lightening (The Stampede)” (1908). It is a wonderful picture.
Remington’s new vision is summed up by “The Outlier” (1909), depicting a solitary Indian, naked to the waist, mounted on a stationary horse and holding a rifle across his lap. The setting is illuminated by a bright yellow full moon. The harmonious colors, deft composition and dignified depiction of a Native American in his natural world makes this a memorable vignette. His friend Hassam, Remington reported, “thinks…[it is] best of my pictures.” Hassrick calls this striking oil “the last and best of Remingtons.”
In the final decade of his life, Remington completed no fewer than 70 night paintings. “Astonishing in their coloristic effect, the paintings reflect an artistic consciousness tempered by war and loss. Stripped of extraneous detail, the paintings are modern in their spare compositional structure and in their anxious uncertainty,” says Anderson. The nocturnes are, as Anderson summarizes, “filled with dark disquiet.”
Remington’s final burst of creativity came soon after the closing of the western frontier, and coincided with changes in American society – immigration, industrialization and urbanization – that greatly troubled the artist. Many see his nocturnes as elegies of a vanished past.
Certainly an examination of his late works, especially these nocturnal canvases, reveals that Remington was much more than a conventional, nostalgic recorder of a romanticized Old West. The imaginative, experimental and powerful nature of these highly personal, concluding works, make them perhaps the most compelling of his career.
He died at age 48 in his Ridgefield home, of complications following an appendectomy. We are left to ponder what he might have achieved if he had lived longer.
Respected critic Royal Cortissoz noted that Remington was “a talent that is always ripening, an artistic personality that is always pushing forward.” Agreeing, art historian Eugen Neuhaus noted Remington’s “feeling for growth. He never stood still; he always improved; and he undoubtedly would have reached a high ideal if he had been granted a longer life.”
Whatever his unrealized potential, Remington’s grand nocturnes underscore his arrival as a skilled fine artist. Kudos to curator Anderson and all concerned for mounting this appealing and rewarding exhibition. Art historian Carol Clark had it about right when she observed of the show that “This new and imaginative look at Remington’s night pictures secures the artist’s place in the history of American art, rather than exclusively in the history of western American art.”
The exhibition catalog, principally authored by Anderson, is the first scholarly publication ever devoted to Remington’s nocturnes. It is a beauty. Anderson writes about the impact of the artist’s Spanish-American War experiences and the evolution of his night paintings, while Yale art historian Alexander Nemerov deals with the impact of photography on the painter’s work, and Barnard College English professor William C. Sharpe examines Remington’s place within the tradition of nocturnes in music, literature and art. An appendix contains observations who worked on his canvases.
There are 136 color plates, many with commentary from the artist’s personal diaries and letters and from contemporary critics, on individual Remington paintings and 24 black-and-white illustrations.
Copublished by Princeton University Press and the National Gallery, the 228-page book is available in hardcover ($49.95) and softcover ($29.95). It is an essential addition to the bookshelves of all fans of American art, especially those interested in Remington and art of the American West.
The Gilcrease Museum is located at 1400 Gilcrease Museum Road in Tulsa. For information, 918-596-2700 or 888-655-2278 or www.gilcrease.org. The Denver Art Museum is at 13th Avenue and Acoma Street. For information, 720-865-5000 or www.denverartmuseum.org.
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