Published: August 22, 2017
By Jessica Skwire Routhier
SHELBURNE, VT. – “Wild Spaces, Open Seasons: Hunting and Fishing in American Art” does not take a point-and-shoot approach. The exhibition that opened in Omaha last February and travels to Fort Worth following its close at the Shelburne Museum explores paintings and sculpture from the early 1800s through the end of World War II, tackling difficult themes and exploring singular works of art that challenge the boundaries of what we think of as “sporting art.”
In fact, avoiding the limitations of that term was an acknowledged goal of curators Kory Rogers of the Shelburne Museum, Adam Thomas of Pennsylvania State University’s Palmer Museum, and Shirley Reece-Hughes and Margaret Adler, both of the Amon Carter Museum.
“When we sat down at the Amon Carter three years ago,” Rogers remembers about planning the exhibition, “we made a conscious decision that we were going to do something a curator of sporting art wouldn’t do.”
In practical terms, this means the exhibition includes not only works that, even in their time, were recognized as “for connoisseurs of rare beauty – not for sportsmen,” as one critic observed of a J. Alden Weir fishing scene, but also that it reexamines as hunting and fishing pictures many defining works of American art not generally appreciated as such.
The curators organized the exhibition thematically. They present six discrete themes, each featuring an array of works encompassing different time periods, weaponry, types of prey and predator and, to some extent, media, though this is predominantly a paintings show. The approach allows for a somewhat more inclusive presentation than what one might reasonably expect in a traditional exhibition of sporting art. Issues of race, ethnicity, gender and social class are tackled head-on. Even prejudices within the discipline of art history are pulled apart, both by refusing to ghettoize so-called “sporting art” and by including several remarkable religious paintings of the type that are so often left out of surveys of American art.
The section of the exhibition titled “Myth and Metaphor” may therefore come as a surprise to the viewer expecting to see only leather-clad, gun-toting outdoorsmen and their prey. Female energy predominates. Adler, the curator for this section, was once a competitive archer. To her it seemed obvious to include American depictions of the goddesses of the hunt, from Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s bronze “Diana of the Tower,” originally designed for the roof of Madison Square Garden, to George de Forest Brush’s mesmerizing “A Celtic Huntress,” a Pre-Raphaelite vision in green and auburn.
The section of the exhibition called “Perils” further shows how any great story – any fish tale, if you will – could be elevated into legend, particularly if danger was involved. Rogers observes that “whenever human interests intersect with animal instincts, things are bound to get tragic.” This is evident in two paintings of bear attacks, by William R. Leigh and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, that Rogers says were among his favorite to research. Another favorite is George Catlin’s “The Rattle Snake’s Den,” an autobiographical work of sorts, with the artist remembering his 8-year-old self taking aim with his shotgun at a nest of writhing rattlesnakes.
Here, too, is Shelburne’s own famous “The Death Struggle” by Charles Deas, showing a white fur trapper and a Native American locked in combat as they plummet, with their horses, off a cliff. The painting appeals shamelessly to the senses – the trapper’s bulging eyes and vivid red jacket, the brave’s gleaming knife and bare arms roped with muscle. But there are deeper concerns here, including who is the hunter and who is the prey, and what is really being imperiled.
Spanning the sections “Perils” and “Trophies” is a remarkable pairing of objects: Carl Rungius’s “Caribou’s Death Struggle,” showing two great beasts with their horns locked together, unable to free themselves and waiting for death, and the actual set of locked horns Rungius found in Canada’s Barren Lands that inspired the painting. Here the trophy is not the prize won in a battle between man and beast, but rather the wreckage left in the wake of unchecked nature.
Somewhat more typical of the trophy genre is William Michael Harnett’s trompe l’oeil still life “After the Hunt,” with the quarry of a jackrabbit and two pigeons triumphantly hung against a rough wall alongside the hunter’s gun and powder horn. Harnett’s contemporary Alexander Pope created similar compositions. The aptly named “Trophies of the Hunt” is an example, but Pope takes a seemingly more critical tone with “The Wild Swan,” depicting a dead trumpeter swan hung upside down, forming a crosslike composition with its long neck and outstretched wings. The painting, Rogers says, was once owned by the Boston branch of the ASPCA.
Pope’s painting may or may not have been a condemnation of market-gunning – shooting mass quantities of wildfowl for sale – but there can be no denying that many hunters made their living this way until it was outlawed in 1900. This is where class – and, to some degree, ethnic – distinctions among hunters emerge. Two sections dedicated to “Livelihoods” and “Leisurely Pursuits” illuminate the differences between those who hunt and fish for profit or subsistence and those who do so as an avocation. The so-called “pot hunter” – one who hunts only to fill his own stewpot – was much maligned in the Nineteenth Century. Part of the reason is that the definition of pot hunter expanded to include those, like the market gunners, who hunted to fill their money pot as well. An illustrative work here is the striking Winslow Homer painting that opens the show, “A Huntsman and Dogs.”
“If you’re just glancing at it, you see this young triumphant man besting nature,” says Rogers, but “a trained sportsman of the time would have seen this as a scoundrel, a man who was a pot hunter who illegally killed that deer, because he was using hounds.” The hunter carries a bloody hide over his shoulder, draped over his gun, and in the other hand he grasps an antler still attached to the deer’s head, wrapped in a cloth. The implication is that he has left the meat behind to rot. Rogers also points to the rough features of Homer’s deer hunter. This is no idealized Anglo-Saxon American hero. The tendency to equate subsistence hunting with inferior ethnic “types” emerges in views of Native Americans, too, including scenes of buffalo hunts by Alfred Jacob Miller and Charles M. Russell, painted nearly 80 years apart.
Compare such scenes, for instance, to David Neal’s “After the Hunt” or Thomas Hovenden’s “The Favorite Falcon.” Lush interiors filled with the spoils of wealth and the hunt, the aquiline-featured white men in sumptuous clothes, with their beasts, loyal pets and female companions all securely in their proper place.
Class distinctions are also clear among fishermen – George Bellows’s salty New England types in “Cleaning Fish” could not be more different from John Singer Sargent’s elegantly clad “Two Girls Fishing.” And yet, somehow, fishing more so than hunting seems almost uniformly to elevate – in American painting at least – those who practice it. Perhaps it is the connection to the Gospels. Bellows’s fishermen, it has been observed, have the same essential composition as a Raphael design of the apostles. Or perhaps it is the enduring sense, dating back to the publication of The Compleat Angler in 1653 London and echoed by Nineteenth Century Americans like Henry David Thoreau, that fishing offered unique opportunities to commune with nature. A pair of golden scenes of trout fishing along wooded streams by Worthington Whittredge illustrates that idea as well as any others in the show.
“Communing with Nature” is, in fact, the sixth of the exhibition’s organizing themes. The common thread here is the sense of community formed around hunting and fishing. Thomas Eakins’s pair of paintings depicting pushing for rail – scouting for small marsh birds in flat-bottomed boats – celebrates, in Reece-Hughes words, “the notion of hunting as a sacrosanct and ancestral rite of passage for all American men, handed down from father to son and friend to friend.” One of the two paintings is a self-portrait, featuring Eakins and his father. Eakins signed the painting, on the bow of the boat, “Benjamin Eakins’s son painted this.”
The teacher-student relationship is also evident in William Sidney Mount’s “Eel Spearing at Setauket.” Rogers explains that while it was painted on request for a patron, it also draws upon “Mount’s own childhood memories of learning to eel spear and flatfish spear with his family servant,” an African American man. However, Rogers says, in the pre-Civil War era, “it would have been very controversial for [Mount] to portray a strong, confident black man wielding his spear, teaching this white boy how to fish.”
Mount’s solution was to replace the figure with that of Rachel Holland Hart, an enslaved woman living with the patron’s family – a change that promotes the widespread fiction of perfect harmony within slaveholding households at the time, and uses both fishing and an idealized view of nature as a backdrop for this pervasive myth.
With such challenging themes, “Wild Spaces, Open Seasons” is no serene sportsmen’s paradise. For a taste of the latter, visitors to Shelburne Museum may also wish to take in “Upstream with Ogden Pleissner,” on view through October 31. Shelburne is the main repository for the work of Pleissner, perhaps best known as a war artist and commercial illustrator, and it presents a new thematic exhibition of his work every two years. This selection of watercolors, oils and etchings focuses on fly fishing. It highlights Pleissner’s considerable artistic strengths – his works would hold their own against Winslow Homer or Frank Weston Benson – and expands on the theme of fishing as, in Thoreau’s words, “a solemn sacrament and withdrawal from the world.”
Shelburne Museum, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Dixon Gallery and Gardens and Joslyn Art Museum organized “Wild Spaces, Open Seasons,” which is accompanied by a handsome catalog from the University of Oklahoma Press. The volume edited by Kevin Sharp contains essays by the four curators.
Following its close at the Shelburne Museum on August 27, “Wild Spaces, Open Seasons: Hunting and Fishing in American Art” travels to Amon Carter Museum from October 7 to January 7.
Shelburne Museum is at 6000 Shelburne Road. For more information, www.shelburnemuseum.org or 802-985-3346.
Jessica Skwire Routhier is the managing editor of Panorama, the journal of the Association of Historians of American Art. She lives in South Portland, Maine.
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