Published: January 26, 2021
By Jessica Skwire Routhier
FORT WORTH, TEXAS – Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington are both mythic American artists. Their artworks represent what – for differing groups of art critics and consumers – have come to be seen as defining products of an “American art.” Homer is seen to represent the East Coast, with his crashing waves and stoic Atlantic fisher folk, and Remington the West, with his roughneck ranch hands and romanticized Native American braves. While Homer’s work was slow to catch on at first, he became one of the most respected artists of his day, and he is now universally lauded among the arts intelligentsia as a centrally important figure in the history of American art. Remington, by contrast, enjoyed wide popularity as a young artist, but since his early death his reputation has fallen among the curators, critics and academic art historians who are the keepers of the canon. It is partly for this reason that the two artists’ work has never before been considered together in a major exhibition, despite their surprising number of commonalities. Seeking to redress that oversight – and, to some extent, both artists’ “mythic” status – the Amon Carter Museum of Art, Portland Museum of Art (Maine) and Denver Art Museum have co-organized “Mythmakers: Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington,” on view at the Amon Carter through February 28.
What could be more different than cowboys and seascapes? Even setting apart, for the moment, those aspects of Remington’s work that now make them seem woefully out-of-date, even willfully racist, how does it even make sense to look at them alongside Homer’s proto-modern surf scenes of the 1890s and argue that there are things to learn from that pairing? What could these two artists and the work they produced possibly have in common? Quite a lot, it turns out, and herein lies the premise of the show as conceived by its curators. Unignorable similarities in artists’ biographies and artistic methodologies knit them together, including their shared artistic origins as war correspondents (Homer for Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War and Remington for Collier’s during the Spanish-American War). But those similarities also come together in some shared aesthetic interests that are evident on their canvases in the exhibition – for, while some of Remington’s famed bronzes are included, this is primarily a paintings show, and it is in that matrix that the most fruitful parallels are to be found.
Curator Margaret Adler says that when she came to the Amon Carter Museum, whose collection is rich in Remingtons; she “was a Homer person,” having studied at Williams College’s prestigious graduate program under renowned Homer scholar Marc Simpson. “So I came at Remington through Homer,” she says, remembering that she quickly discovered that others were doing the same. A chance conversation with another curator led her to the Portland Museum of Art, where then-curator Jochen Wierich was working on an exhibition inspired by a photo he’d found that purported to show Homer, Remington and other artists playing cards together. They never were able to absolutely authenticate the photo, and Wierich moved on from the PMA, but the enthusiasm for presenting the exhibition remained, and the PMA and the Amon Carter were obvious partners. (Diana Greenwold took over the exhibition from Wierich in Portland, and eventually Thomas Brent Smith and Jennifer R. Henneman from the Denver Art Museum, both Remington scholars, joined the curatorial team.) The photo had underscored the fact that Homer and Remington moved in the same circles, and that despite their reputations as lone auteurs, they in fact were part of a community within which ideas, exemplars, patrons and dealers freely circulated. “What happens,” says Adler, “when you talk about two American icon artists as idiosyncratic geniuses who nobody is like, but you talk about them the same way?”
For even if the photograph is a red herring, there is much that Homer and Remington shared. Although they were from different generations – Homer was born in 1836 and Remington in 1861 – Homer’s slow start and Remington’s untimely death means that the peak of their careers was simultaneous, with both artists creating their best-remembered works from the 1890s through the first years of the Twentieth Century. As war correspondents, both earned their artistic stripes on the battlefield rather than the academy; their artistic visions were formed from the requirements of their employers and the expectations of their wide, general audience. Not only did the artwork they produced have to be in a form that could be translated into reproducible images by the technology of their day, it had to communicate the facts of the battlefront in a way that would effectively enhance the journalistic accounts that accompanied them.
The result was a kind of artistic reportage that, Adler notes, was praised for its accuracy at the time – in the case of both artists – but was rarely the kind of point-by-point transcription that today we associate with photojournalism. Homer, famously, highlighted distinct moments from the lives of soldiers on the front – a lone dancer near a campfire, the arrival of the mail, a sharpshooter drawing a bead on his target – often synthesizing them into single illustrations, as a series of vignettes. Remington unabashedly created heroic and highly dramatized images – a stagecoach under siege, infantrymen as elegantly contrapposto Greek gods. The images were not direct recordings of what they saw, but rather amalgamations of their acquired experience living alongside the soldiers they came to know. Homer’s and Remington’s “veracity arises out of the authenticity of their sentiment, not the accurate transcription of facts,” writes Adler. “What they best accomplish is conveying sensation: the feeling of being there.”
Adler sees in both artists’ later work an ability to edit, to know what not to depict, that is central to the visual power of their work. With the arguable exception of Homer’s completely unpeopled seascapes, both artists embrace narrative: something has just happened, or is about to happen, or will possibly happen, but often the what and when are left unclear. Take, for example, Homer’s famed “The Fox Hunt:” a flock of ravens besiege a fox struggling through deep snow, a seeming inversion of the food chain in a world where scarcity has caused extreme behavior. But the fox might yet get away; it may even end up taking one of the birds home for dinner. Remington’s “Fight for the Watering Hole” similarly focuses on the defense of resources: here, a woeful but crucially important watering hole in the desert, defended on all sides by frontiersmen with shotguns. We never see the threat, and we do not know what will happen or, perhaps, what has already happened and is now being guarded against. The painting aptly illustrates Remington’s own advice to “do your hardest work outside the picture, and let your audience take away something to think about – to imagine.”
The rugged masculinity of these individuals is a common theme in Remington’s work, and in Homer’s too, although in somewhat different contexts. Both artists were interested in images of manhood that elevated the ideal of the “strenuous life” propounded by Theodore Roosevelt both before and after his presidency. The truest form of Americanness, in the ethos of the time, was a man-white, of course – comfortable in the outdoors, who could exist on his own wit and skill and strength, who “does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil,” in Roosevelt’s words. For Homer, initially, that was the Adirondack guide; for Remington, the cowboy; and in both cases critics, then and now, have tended to conflate each artist with his ideal type. There is some truth to it: Homer really did accompany guides in the Adirondacks and in Maine on strenuous backcountry expeditions, and Remington really did follow cattle trails in the West. However, the day-to-day truth of both their lives bore little resemblance to the hardy heroes they painted. They were New Yorkers with vacation homes in only slightly wilder places; as Adam Gopnik writes in his preface for the Homer/Remington catalog, “It is a shock today to go to Homer’s home [in Maine] and see how surprisingly suburban it seems.” They represented a very different kind of white masculinity than the one they depicted: they were businessmen and scholars; they wore bespoke suits, had beautifully groomed mustaches, dined at the club with rich patrons, and socialized with other artists, playing cards.
And so it’s perhaps all the more notable that in their paintings, both artists also represented idealized figures that propose alternatives to white masculinity, not as mere tokens but as major themes within their work. Beginning in the 1880s, Homer frequently put women in his paintings and large-scale etchings; the “West Wind,” with its lone figure gazing out over the stormy sea, a bundle upon her back, is a key example. Homer’s women are idealized, to be sure, but not in the way that other Nineteenth Century painters idealized women – as sylph-like representations of feminine virtues or as modern-day goddesses. Homer’s women are female iterations of Roosevelt’s “strenuous life,” their figures solid with muscle, their confrontation with the elements not a matter of poetic contemplation but of survival. Remington, for his part, was no less interested in the “Indian” than the cowboy. Paintings like “The Buffalo Runners” and “Ridden Down” – as well as many of his sculptures – while they certainly employ somewhat flattened and generalized iconography and traffic in stereotypes about the Indigenous people of the American West – undeniably depict them heroically, as men of strength and action, unfazed by danger.
None of this is to excuse the stereotypes – even the abject racism – that do appear in the paintings in this exhibition. Even a seemingly heroic Indigenous man is reduced to the trope of “noble savage” seen through Remington’s eyes, and sometimes his tropes are far more troubling and violent; his bronze “The End of the Trail,” for instance (not in the show), is undeniably a romanticization of violence upon a Native body. Guest-written object labels, many from an Indigenous or multicultural perspective, go some way to address this in the context of specific artworks. It bears noting, however, that in the Portland venue of the exhibition, these texts did a better job of calling Remington to account than they did Homer. Perhaps this was a matter of the show being in Maine, where Homer is as a rule above reproach, or perhaps it is indicative of an ongoing tendency to favor Homer, in all respects, over his contemporary. In any case, it seems the museum world remains unaccustomed to seeing Homer’s heroic whiteness as anything other than totally benign.
But in the end, again, this is really a paintings show – and what a treasure trove of pure painting it is. You can be utterly uninterested in “cowboys and Indians” and still be thrilled to stand in front of Remington’s monumental “Dash for the Timber,” with licks of white and red expressing the frantic motion of a horse’s fetlock or a bandanna whipping in the wind. Homer’s “Fox Hunt,” “Snap the Whip” and “Weatherbeaten” are similarly riveting – major works that are tour de forces of color and pigment and movement. Seeing and understanding these works alongside each other, and within the context of the artists’ shared experiences, interests and approaches to painting, is a rare and long overdue opportunity.
The Amon Carter Museum is at 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd. For more information, www.cartermuseum.org or 817-738-1933.
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