Remington’s nocturnes

Remington’s nocturnes – Books About Antiques

Alfred Mayor

Frederic Remington: The Color of Night, by Nancy K. Anderson with contributions by Williams C. Sharpe and Alexander Nemerov (National Gallery of Art with Princeton University Press, 800-777-4726), $49.95 (hardcovers).

Frederic Remington first went west in 1881 at the age of twenty-one and from an artistic point of view he never left. The soon-to-be mythical frontier of cowboys and Indians, cavalry and covered wagons remained his subject in magazine illustrations, novels, sculptures, and paintings until his premature death in 1909.

The nocturnes were preceded by the painter’s experience of the Spanish-American War, which he went to observe as a correspondent, saying that “the greatest thing which men are called on to do” is military combat. His father had been a famous soldier, and so the artist approached the war with equanimity. The result was quite the reverse, for in the end he wrote: “all the broken spirits, bloody bodies, hopeless, helpless suffering which drags its length to the rear, are so much more appalling than anything else in the world that words won’t mean anything to one who has not seen it.” Then, in 1900, he wrote to his wife from New Mexico that the West today “is all brick buildings–derby hats and blue overhauls–it spoils my early illusions–and they are my capital.” It is in this chastened and disillusioned frame of mind that he turned to his nocturnal paintings, in which narratives are begun but not finished, questions are asked but not answered, danger is sensed but not seen, silence is ominous, and the threat o f death is omnipresent.

Having failed as a sheep rancher and saloonkeeper he made his name as an illustrator, although he wanted above all to be remembered as a painter. He only really achieved this ambition in the last decade of his life with some seventy nocturnal paintings of the kinds of western subjects he painted earlier in daylight The nocturnes are the subject of this book, which accompanies a traveling exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C.

One of the essays that precede the catalogue of the paintings situates Remington among other painters of darkness such as James McNeill Whistler, Washington Allston, Caspar David Friedrich, Albert Pinitham Ryder, and Winslow Homer, another essay evaluates the parallel development of electricity, the photographic flash, and Remington’s nocturnes.

The catalogue of the seventy-two works provides, in addition to dimensions, inscriptions, and so forth, relevant excerpts from Remington’s diary and selected reviews. It is followed by an admirably technical chapter about his materials and techniques and details of the conservation so far accomplished on some of his canvases.

Remington’s nights are imagined, and in his visions the palette is a spectrum of eerie greens, “strange water-green moonlights that are fundamental to our great Western plains,” as an anonymous reviewer in the Craftsman wrote in 1909 about Apache Scouts Listening–a tense symphony in greens and black. At the same time his topics, his people, and his wonderful horses are as real as they are in his daylight pictures. The Luckless Hunter, for example, shows a muffled man on a patient pony plodding through a dark and snowy landscape. A strong tailwind blows the man’s hair and pony’s mane and tail as straight as windsocks.

The influential critic Royal Cortissoz, an admirer of the nocturnes, wrote of this painting: “I hardly know which is the more moving…the stolidly resigned rider, huddling his blanket about him against the freezing night air, or the tired pony about which you would say there hung a hint of pathos if that were not to give, perhaps, too anecdotic an edge to an altogether natural episode…. Mr. Remington makes his horses stand out in this way as having something like personality.” Among the happy horses are those in The Gossips, which shows two Indians chatting and gesticulating while astride their motionless ponies in a peaceful evening landscape by a river. A foal nuzzles the tail of one of the horses, visibly less patient. The admirin g Cortissoz wrote: “One does not need to humanize animals or to look at them through the eyes of Landseer to see in them traits that are individual and even touching…. They are full of ‘horse character,’ and in this respect the touch given by the little foal is perfect.”

Remington did not paint these dreamscapes while in a dream. According to his diary, he repainted The Stampede by Lightning of 1908 three times to get the sheets of rain just right, what he called “the curious yellow glow of a rain storm, seen only at long intervals but not forget[t]able.” In the foreground of this picture is a cowboy galloping hell-bent for election to head off the stampede. His horse has all four feet off the ground as if he had been plucked from a frame of one of Eadweard Muybridge’s serial photographs. The Remington painting that Childe Hassam admired most, according to Remington’s diary, was The Outlier, a picture of a solitary Indian, naked to the waist, mounted on a stationary horse that has a bright white face and white socks. A rifle lies across the Indian’s lap. Behind is a huge, bright yellow full moon, and the grassy field underfoot is composed of green, blue, and brown. Remove the sentinel and you have a landscape by Vincent van Gogh. Remington painted this picture ten times befor e he got it fight. No dreamer there.

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