An artist whose ship passed in the night

Frederic Remington showed so much painterly promise, for so little time

Art

April 20, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

The usual distinction between art and illustration is that illustration merely tells us what we already know, whereas true art enlarges our experience of the world.

Frederic Remington, the Eastern tenderfoot whose dramatic depictions of cowboys and Indians, cavalrymen and cattle drivers brought him fame and critical acclaim as a chronicler of the authentic Old West in the first years of the 20th century, started out as an illustrator but aspired to be an artist. And for a while, at least, he seemed to have achieved his goal.

"I have landed among the painters, and well up, too," he crowed soon after his third show at Knoedler Galleries in New York opened to enthusiastic crowds and splendid reviews in 1908.

The critic for the New York Tribune lavished praise on Remington's new "swift and judicious handling of pigment," while a writer for The Craftsman remarked that "he has grown to think through his paint so freely and fluently that in some of his more recent work he seems to have used his medium unconsciously, as a great musician does his piano and score."

It was the high point of a career that, for Remington, had been marked by constant uncertainty and doubt about his own abilities as a painter. But the artist never lived to fulfill the promise of his 1908 success. A year later he was dead, prematurely, at age 48, and a very few years afterward, the very assumptions on which his art was based were swept away by the revolutionary impact of modern art.

This, in brief, is the background of Frederic Remington: The Color of Night, a fine, albeit modestly scaled exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington that runs through July 13. The show presents more than 70 of the artist's paintings of night subjects, which became for him a discipline for mastering the intricacies of light and color that, in his own estimation, he needed in order to transcend the limitations of a mere "illustrator" and become a genuine artist.

Moonlight, danger

How well he succeeded in this quest is evidenced by the dozens of hauntingly beautiful, atmospheric works he produced during the last decade of his life. In them, the self-professed "black-and-white" man who first achieved fame for his monochromatic, yet skillfully observed sketches of Western life as an illustrator for popular journals increasingly turned his attention to purely painterly problems.

Like Whistler before him, Remington was fascinated by the emotional and symbolic qualities of moonlight, and like Whistler, he also called his compositions "nocturnes," a Roman-tic coinage that recalled the mysterious night music of Chopin and Beethoven.

He was also a great dramatist. Remington's night paintings are suffused with a barely suppressed aura of danger and violence whose source invariably seems to lie hidden just beyond the picture frame.

In Apache Scouts Listening, for example, a group of cavalrymen and their Indian scouts pause on the edge of a moonlit forest intent on an unseen threat suggested by an ominous shadow in the picture's foreground. In Fired On, a troop of soldiers recoils from the bank of a shallow creek as bullets from unseen assailants throw up plumes of water in front of them.

Sometimes the menacing note is implied simply by the gestures and body language of Remington's subjects. In Shot-gun Hospitality, a lone white settler casually cradles his weapon on his lap while conversing with a group of Indians who have approached his campfire at night; one of the Indians' rifles is barely visible, poking out from beneath the long rawhide cloak wrapped around his shoulders. In Moonlight, Wolf, a startled predator glares at the viewer with narrowed eyes as if daring any intruder to come closer.

Remington was a remarkably adept draftsman, his figures of men and horses, especially, have an electric vitality that seems utterly convincing. His palette of dark greens, browns and blues accented by small areas of orange and yellow, however, seems barely distinguishable from the blacks, whites and grays of his popular illustrations, and one can't help wondering whether the pictures' emotional tone would really change that much if the colors were eliminated altogether.

This is an interesting and thought-provoking show that raises almost as many questions as it attempts to answer. Remington strove mightily to overcome the mere "illustrator" label. But ironically, we have now become so familiar with the type of Old West imagery he pioneered that it almost seems old-hat again.

Exhibit

What: Frederic Reming-ton: The Color of Night

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Wing, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue N.W.

When: Through July 13

Hours: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Admission: Free

Call: 202-737-4215

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