Thursday, June 21, 2012

Frederic Remington: The Color of Night

Frederic Remington: The Color of Night, the first exhibition devoted entirely to the renowned American artist's nocturnes, was on view from April 13 through July 13 in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. Remington's night paintings, considered by many scholars to be his most compelling works, explore the aesthetic and technical challenges of painting darkness. The exhibition included 29 paintings, some of which have not been seen publicly since the early 1900s. The exhibition has been organized by the National Gallery of Art in association with the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it was on view August 10 through November 9, 2003; it traveled to the Denver Art Museum, December 13, 2003, through March 14, 2004.

In the decade preceding his premature death, Frederic Remington (1861-1909) produced a series of more than 70 paintings that took as their subject the color of night. Surprisingly, his nocturnes are filled with color and light—moonlight, firelight, candlelight. Immediately recognized as innovative works, these paintings confirmed Remington's position as an American artist of the first rank.

Frederic Remington has long been celebrated as one of the most gifted interpreters of the American West. In recent years, Remington works once viewed as "traditional" and "documentary" have come to be seen by scholars as experimental and imaginative. Among the paintings that have drawn particular attention are the late nocturnes, with their ghostlike images and dramatic tonalities.

While still a young man, Remington established himself as the premier illustrator of western subjects. As he matured he turned his attention away from illustration, concentrating instead on painting and sculpture. About 1900 Remington became intrigued with nocturnal images. Before his death in 1909 from complications following an appendectomy, Remington completed more than 70 nocturnes. Astonishing in their coloristic effects, Remington's nocturnes reflect his interest in technological innovations, including flash photography and the advent of electricity. They are also deeply personal paintings that often mirror the artist's experience of combat during the Spanish-American War.

Frederic Remington, The Scout: Friends or Foes?, 1902–1905, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Already less concerned with images that complemented or completed text, Remington soon began to compose paintings that posed, rather than answered, questions. Among the earliest of these works were two paintings from about 1902. In the first, a lone Indian—unsure whether he faces, as the title suggests, friends or foes—stares at a cluster of dwellings near the horizon.

The exhibition presented 29 of Remington's finest nocturnes, including The Scout: Friends or Foes? (1902-1905),

Frederic Remington, Evening on a Canadian Lake, 1905, Collection of William I. Koch, Palm Beach, Florida

In Evening on a Canadian Lake, an alarming sound or movement outside the picture plane has caught the attention of the figures in the canoe. The subject of their interest remains unknown. Remington explained his artistic approach: "Cut down and out—do your hardest work outside the picture, and let your audience take away something to think about—to imagine."

an early example of Remington's mature style; Evening on a Canadian Lake (1905)

Frederic Remington, Coming to the Call, c. 1905, Collection of William I. Koch, Palm Beach, Florida

In Coming to the Call a moose silhouetted against a vivid sunset sky is about to be shot by the figure in the canoe. Remington created a frozen moment of peril. Beautifully crafted and skillfully composed, these paintings 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 open.

and Coming to the Call (1905), two works exemplifying Remington's technique of composing images that pose questions; and

The Call for Help (1908)

and Moonlight, Wolf (1909), two paintings depicting frozen moments of panic and fear.

The Artist

Hailed as a chronicler of the American West, Frederic Remington was a multitalented artist who enjoyed success as an illustrator, writer, sculptor, and painter. His drawings of cavalry troops, cowboys, and Indians filled popular periodicals such as Harper's Weekly and Collier's. One contemporary critic declared that most easterners got their image of the West from Remington's work.

Though identified with the American West, Remington actually spent much of his life in the East. Born in Canton, New York, in 1861, Remington briefly attended the School of Fine Arts at Yale before starting work as a reporter. As a young man, he traveled widely, sketching the people and places of the new American frontier. By 1886 he was established as an illustrator, selling work to many of the major magazines. By the mid-1890s he was one of the most popular and successful illustrators of the age.

In 1898, at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Remington went to Cuba as a war correspondent. He was deeply shaken by the reality of combat. His return to the U.S. was followed by a period of great creativity, in particular, his experimentation with nocturnal images. Filled with danger, threatened violence, and menacing silence, these paintings often mirror, metaphorically, Remington's experience of war.

In his short lifetime (he died at age 48), Remington produced more than 3,000 drawings and paintings, 22 bronze sculptures, a novel, a Broadway play, and over 100 articles and stories. Coinciding with the closing of the American frontier and the first decade of the twentieth century, the night paintings are seen by many as elegies for a vanished past.

Exhibition Curator, Catalogue, Programs, and Resources

Nancy K. Anderson, associate curator of American and British paintings at the National Gallery of Art, is curator of the exhibition and principal author of the catalogue. Anderson was curator of two prior Gallery exhibitions: Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise in 1991 and Thomas Moran in 1997.

Published in conjunction with the exhibition, Frederic Remington: The Color of Night (228 pp., 136 color plates, 23 black and white plates) was another first, the only scholarly publication ever devoted to Remington's nocturnes. It includes essays by Nancy Anderson on the evolution of Remington's nocturnes; Alexander Nemerov, professor of art history at Yale University, on the influence of photographic innovations on Remington's work; and William C. Sharpe, professor of English at Barnard College, on Remington's place within the tradition of the nocturne in music, literature, and painting.