Western Nights

Remington's dark scenes light up the Denver Art Museum.

It's amazing how readily recognizable the imagery associated with the American West is, especially considering how quickly the whole cowboy-and-Indian thing came and went. In less than a century, the Western states were transformed from a huge, unknown frontier into a settled region linked by railroads and lit by electric lights.

The drama created by the rapid changes explains a good deal of the West's enduring allure, but there's more to it than that. The untamed expanses of land, much of it stunningly beautiful, and the population of exotic and interesting residents conspired to capture the imagination of Americans and Europeans beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing into our own time. This romance with the West was initially propelled by -- you guessed it -- art.

One of the great artist-propagandists for the Old West was Frederic Remington, an illustrator, sculptor and artistically ambitious painter. His most important paintings are those he did in the last years before his death, a time when he pushed himself both technically and conceptually. They reveal a fundamental awareness of what was happening in the most sophisticated and advanced currents in the art world of his time. Twenty-five of these paintings are on display in Frederic Remington: The Color of Night, installed in the Gates Foundation Gallery on the seventh floor of the Denver Art Museum.

"The Call for Help," by Frederic Remington, oil on canvas.
"The Call for Help," by Frederic Remington, oil on canvas.

The Remington exhibit has attracted quite a few visitors -- not unexpectedly, given the artist's fame and the easy accessibility of his style and subjects. When I went to the show last week, the mid-sized Gates was mobbed. Since the January closing of El Greco to Picasso, which was housed on the first floor, the seventh floor has been pulling in the highest daily attendance numbers at the museum -- a direct result of the Remington show's popularity. It's apparent that had the DAM chosen to install this exhibit in a more prominent spot, allowing for more space in between the pieces, it could have been marketed as a ticketed blockbuster.

Remington was born in 1861, and he showed an aptitude for drawing and painting as a child. He briefly attended Yale University before heading to the West in 1880, where he sketched the astounding sights he saw from horseback. Remington was a rugged, outdoorsy type, and during his trips to the frontier, he'd cowpunch and prospect, among other gigs, to keep going. Luckily, he found ready success with his drawings, and just a few years after he started, his illustrations were regularly published in Harper's Weekly. Soon after that, he came to be regarded as the preeminent Western illustrator in the country, and his work appeared throughout the popular press.

In 1898 he signed on as a correspondent for the Spanish-American War in Cuba. The rigors of the Cuban jungles took a toll on his health and on his views of the world, and he became increasingly dispirited and given over to excessive drinking.

The exhibit at the DAM focuses on Remington's "Nocturnes," or night views, though the definition of what constitutes night is pretty loose (a number of pictures are set at either sunrise or sunset). These paintings were done after the artist's health and spirits had begun to fail. The oldest of them dates to 1900, the year he moved to his private island on the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York, and the newest to 1909, the year he died from peritonitis, at age 48.

Denver is the last city on the tour for this traveling show, which was organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in association with the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. The paintings come from art institutions throughout the United States, as well as from private collections. Some of the privately loaned pieces have not been seen in public since Remington sold them at the turn of the last century.

Anne Morand, from the Gilcrease Museum, came up with the idea of putting together Remington's "Nocturnes," and she assisted the show's lead curator, the National Gallery's Nancy K. Anderson, every step of the way. Anderson is the author of the thoughtful and informative catalogue, which also includes essays by William C. Sharpe and Alexander Nemerov. Anderson examines the paintings historically and stylistically within a biographical format, and Sharpe puts them in the broad context of artists of the time being interested in paintings and photographs that recorded night scenes. Nemerov discusses the relationship of the Remington "Nocturnes" to the development of the lightbulb and of flash photography.

Whew! It's heady stuff, with the three authors arguing that Remington was not merely a glorified illustrator, as many believe, or a stylistic reactionary, but rather a great painter who fully participated in the key artistic developments of his time -- and they use the "Nocturnes" to prove it. This is a radical idea, by the way, one that's not yet generally accepted, but I think the arguments the three make are pretty compelling, especially the provocative photography angle. It turns out that Remington often based his paintings on photographs, a very new idea at the time, and a clever way to deal with the tension that exists to this day between photography and painting.

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