The deeper darkness of Frederic Remington

Two museum collections show humanity, flaws of controversial artist

Destination: Upstate New York

April 06, 2003|By Hal Smith | Hal Smith,Special to the Sun

It's been 15 years since a major Eastern museum has devoted a show to Frederic Remington, America's best-known sculptor, illustrator and painter of the frontier. So for anyone with a passion for American or Western art, the hot ticket this spring will be the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Opening next Sunday, The Color of Night will be the first exhibit devoted entirely to Remington's nocturnes, or night paintings, which are causing art historians to reassess his stature.

From 1900 until his death in 1909, Remington produced at least 72 canvases in which he explored the difficulties of painting darkness. The results are filled, surprisingly, with color and light -- moonlight, firelight and candlelight. Several paintings have not been seen publicly in nearly 100 years.

But if you want to avoid the crowds -- while enjoying the landscape the artist most loved -- head to upstate New York, where two more varied and permanent collections of Remingtons are available year-round. Both can be visited in a long weekend.

The larger and more comprehensive of the two collections is in the Frederic Remington Art Museum, founded in 1923 in a Victorian mansion in Ogdensburg, a small river town near the Thousand Islands and the Canadian border.

Anyone unfamiliar with his biography would assume that Remington was a Westerner. In fact, he never resided more than a year in the West, living most of his adult life in New Rochelle, a New York City suburb. He was born and buried near rural Ogdensburg in New York's so-called North Country, between the western edge of the Adirondacks and the St. Lawrence River.

While the museum preserves the estate of a hometown boy, another quite different Victorian building holds its Remington treasures in Corning, a small city more noted for its world-class museum of art glass and its proximity to the Finger Lakes wine country.

The Rockwell Museum of Western Art is housed in the town's former city hall and fire station, an imposing 1893 Romanesque structure on the National Historic Register. Although the museum was gutted and remodeled two years ago in time for its 25th anniversary, you can still see the patched hole in the lobby ceiling where firefighters slid down a pole to the fire engines below.

The Rockwell museum is built on the collection of Robert Rockwell, a merchant born in the West who prospered as the owner of a department store in downtown Corning. It's a pleasant small town whose retail district along tree-lined Market Street is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Market Street is a fun place for window-shopping, but don't pass by the Old World Cafe, a relocated 1880s ice cream parlor that also serves quiche and other light fare for lunch. If you leave the cafe by the back door, you'll step into the town's visitor information center. The Corning Museum of Glass is within walking distance, a must-see and one of those rare museums that kids can enjoy.

Museums' beginnings

If you start out for Ogdensburg via Route 14 north along Seneca Lake, you can stop off at the Finger Lakes wineries, about 25 miles from Corning. Another option is Route 13 north, which will take you through Ithaca, Cornell University's quintessential college town. Stop in at the famous vegetarian Moosewood Restaurant downtown.

Either way, you should head for I-81 north to Ogdensburg, which is part of the Thousand Islands, a scenic region with 26 state parks that attract campers, fishermen, boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts -- the people with whom Remington loved to lounge.

In addition to sharing the anomaly of being "Western" in the East, the two Remington museums have also survived quaint and precarious beginnings:

* Thirty years ago, Rockwell displayed his museum-quality paintings and sculpture throughout his department store, high on the walls above the dry goods and greeting cards, but in the aisles as well. Having a de facto museum in the store helped bring in customers and, surprisingly, nothing was ever stolen. But many an uninformed stranger passing through town on busy Route 17 probably assumed, incorrectly, that the art works were copies.

* Naivete, however, was disastrous in Ogdensburg, where an unknown quantity of sketches torn from Remington sketchbooks were sold at the museum's front desk for 75 cents and a dollar apiece. After all, there were hundreds of them, weren't there? In the mid-1950s, a large chunk of the collection was sold off to buy a furnace and paint the building, an action that now would be considered curatorial malpractice.

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