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Western Nights

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

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 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.  

A lot of effort was put into setting the right mood for the show. Many of the paintings were reframed in black specifically for this exhibit so that the subtle images would stand out more. The Gates Gallery was painted a deep shade of purple-y blue that could aptly be described as "dusky." Heightening the evening-like feel even further, the paintings are pinpoint-lighted while the rest of the room is dimly lit. The result of these tricks of the exhibition trade is magical and provides the perfect atmosphere for viewing the darkly luminous works.

All of them are interesting in one way or another, but for me, the standouts are those in which Remington attempted to create his own unique version of impressionism, which was widespread among American artists in the late nineteenth century. James McNeil Whistler, an American artist who worked in France and England, developed his own variant of the style, called tonalism, that became widely influential and was especially important for Remington. Also in the wind was another impressionist-style variant embraced by a different group of American painters, called The Ten, whose work also influenced Remington. Certainly the "Nocturnes" are various hybrids of these different influences, but here's the interesting part: Remington never fully abandoned realism. It's striking how similar his compositions and subjects are to those of the greatest American realist, Winslow Homer.

In a painting such as "The Old Stage-Coach of the Plains," an oil on canvas from 1901 and one of the first items in the show, Remington's commitment to impressionism is clear. The expressive and brushy handling of the scrub-covered hillside is related to the style, as is Remington's fanatical attention to the effects of reflected light -- in this case, strong moonlight. For a painting such as this, it's likely that Remington used photographs rather than live models, which I'm sure has something to do with the very graphic nature of the composition. The piece is meticulously composed, with the stagecoach and the teams of horses stacked up from the bottom to just above the middle of the picture. One neat effect Remington conjures up is the golden glow emanating from the cab of the stagecoach, which immediately draws our eyes to it.

"Fired On," from 1907, hangs on the adjacent wall. It's stunning and very abstract, although there is no confusion about its depiction of an ambush in which a riding party is being fired on in the dead of night. The palette is so dark that it's made up of little more than blacks and grays. The darkness cloaks the details of the picture, as do the unbelievable surface effects Remington achieves. The surface looks scuffed or scraped, and the paint -- especially on the light-gray horse -- looks as though it was daubed on when it was nearly dried out. By any standard, "Fired On" is a masterpiece.

Also in that same class is 1908's "The Call for Help," which is hung on the back wall. This is a moonlit snow scene in which three horses are backed up against a fence, facing a pair of menacing wolves. In the background is the lighted cabin window: If help's going to come, it's coming from there. The snow is a beautiful sea green with white highlights, done in short, aggressive brushstrokes. Luxurious and painterly, pieces such as "The Call for Help" display the long way that Remington had come in a very short time from the realist illustrations of the 1880s and '90s that made him famous.

Hung not far from "The Call for Help" is the newest painting in the show, 1909's "The Gossips," in which two Indians on horseback pause to speak with one another. The painting is very unusual. A body of water runs across the middle of it, and in the water's surface is a reflection of the sky, so that both water and sky are done in the same dazzling yellows and oranges. The Indians and a tepee village in the background are scribbled in, as is the field of grasses in the foreground. Parts of this piece are virtually abstract-expressionist, which links it to the paintings by Remington's mentors in The Ten. The tepees, for instance, have been conveyed with little more than some smudges of green-gray paint over orange.

Frederic Remington: The Color of Night is scheduled to close in just over a week, so if you plan to see it, there is some sense of urgency. I'd recommend that you do see it, even though I realize that many in the art world hate Western art. Surprisingly, Remington's paintings have a lot to do not only with the West, but also with the history of early modernism in America. They are bold responses to the rise of impressionism, and because they are based on photos, they also respond to the rise of mechanical reproduction. So how modern is Remington? Very modern indeed.


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