Arts: Frederic Remington, Claude Lorrain

Remington Looking West, paintings and drawing by Frederic Remington at The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Also, drawings by Claude Lorrain at The Clark.

The name Frederic Remington is synonymous with artistic depictions of the American West. Yet he was a born-and-bred Easterner who worked during his adult life in a studio near New York City. Educated at Yale University, he was born in 1861 and died prematurely in 1909 of a burst appendix. In his shortened career, he produced more than 2,700 artworks ranging from paintings to illustrations for Harper’s Weekly and Scribner’s to 23 separate bronze cowboy sculptures that are eminently collectible today in their many edition multiples.

This exhibit is a compact survey of Remington’s oeuvre which introduced Easterners to the American West at a time when the Old West in fact was disappearing into history. And perhaps that is the beauty of Remington, that he captured it so adroitly while it still was genuine, at the end of the sheriff-and-outlaw and cowboy-and-Indian eras, but before the advent of the automobile.

Whether Remington was merely an illustrator or a real artist is open to a debate that plagued him throughout his life. But in light of the sharp decline in standards in art today, we should give all benefit to this man who singularly captured the spirit of all things Western. His works are a delight to the eye.

In a painting like Indian Trapper of 1889 (above, detail), Remington offers a trademark vision of a lone Native American on a horse. The sheen of the horse’s hind quarter, the Indian’s dramatic gesture in turning to the painter, the horse’s static but at the same time dynamic pose with its tail and mane in motion, make this painting quintessential Remington. Meanwhile, the impressionistic quality of the landscape in Indian Trapper was another Remington style, showing a lesser concern for landscape than for the people he pictured.

In a highly charged composition like Past All Surgery (Aiding A Comrade) (below) from the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, we see full-bore Remington, a hotshot action picture with dust and hooves flying, bridles snapping, three men splashed across the canvas in wild bodily gesticulations and horses straining in every possible contortion. The picture is centered, and brightly lit, like many of his works, showing the folks back East that ‘Home on the Range’ indeed was where ‘the skies are not cloudy all day’. The reference to “surgery” indicates that the fallen man probably cannot be saved.

What is interesting is the dissimilar treatment of the two different subjects. The US Calvary and cowboys generally are depicted in wild motion, while Indians are seen more stoically and serenely, perhaps Remington’s interpretation of the polar civilizations confronting one another on the plains and mountains of the West.

The Defiance of 1890 shows us “a brave warrior, noble and solitary, rebelliously resisting the regrettable but inevitable invasion onto his land”, says the wall label. And the painting is almost inert, of a Native American holding a talisman high in a defiant gesture, his horse relaxed in a foreshortened perspective, his headdress impressionistic in nature, the entire composition set in a bright, golden sunshine on this small canvas, about two feet tall.

Meanwhile Cowboy of 1890 is horizontal, and shows a rider on a horse that is positively clipping across the land, its four legs off the ground in a dazzling gesture of speed, the cowboy leaning forward, and the entire composition resembling a speeding bullet.

In 1895, Remington decided to try his hand at bronze casting, and his first effort is included in the Clark exhibit. Broncho Buster shows a horse rearing, and the piece took 9 months to compose. But it is one of Remington’s most famous bronzes, with 90 copies originally sold.  Also in the Clark exhibit is Wounded Bunkie, a side-by-side 2-horse-2-rider composition of 1896 with only 2 legs out of 8 fastened to the base and holding up the sculpture. It never had the commercial appeal of Broncho Buster but appears more challenging sculpturally.

In an effort to make his paintings as accessible as his illustrations, Remington made some canvases in black and white for reproduction purposes, which offers an interesting departure for a gallery exhibit. Pursuing the Indians of 1896 is one such B&W, a group of cavalry men firing rifles in a planar composition. It was reproduced as part of the biography of a man named Nelson Miles.

Later in his career, Remington experimented with a variety of nighttime compositions using only the moon as the light source. These paintings tend to be dank green, blue, grey and brown, are far less detailed than his sunlit compositions, and include pictures like Indian Scouts at Evening of 1906, in which Remington said he wished to study “how to do the silver sheen of moonlight.” Another, A Reconnaisance of 1902, shows a group of horseback trackers near a dark and menacing forest under the stars, with danger suggested in the brush. All in all, he captured nighttime scenes with as much aplomb – although a different type of aplomb – as his daylit pictures.

Remington’s few drawings in this small but enlightening exhibit show his efforts to be more illustrational than draughtsmanly. But no matter. His paintings are a joy to look at as lively documentation of a time and place now gone, like most in art’s history.

Claude Lorrain Drawings acquired by the Clark: Also on view at The Clark during the Remington exhibit was a series of 18 drawings and one small painting by the French landscape artist Claude Lorrain, who lived 1600-1682. His real name was Claude Gelee.

These drawings are so classically European that it stirs the soul to see them here in America in one of the largest groupings outside of the Continent. One of the most amusing pieces in this small show is a two-sided Study for a Seaport of 1640-41, in which the sketchy drawing of an urban port appears to be reversed on each side of the paper (it is exhibited in a two-sided frame) almost as if each line had bled straight through the paper. What the artist’s intention was in making it is hard to know. Perhaps as a test of drawing skill and proportion? The drawing in fact is crossed by diagonal composition lines.

Other nice touches include Cascades of Tivoli (1640) (above, detail), which shows a rocky, tumbling landscape that looks like a waterfall; and A Wooded Landscape and Distant Buildings, which demonstrates the artist’s multiple talents in handling both the natural and the man-made in the same image.

Pastoral Landscape and Trees of 1640 is another classically Euro drawing with brown wash applied only partially and almost haphazardly, as if the artist decided against it halfway through. The only painting in this group, the elliptical Rest on the Flight into Egypt shows Lorrain deftly using the tiniest of his brushes to its fullest potential in a way that makes us long for more Old World artisanship.

Assault of a Citadel of 1658 presents a small army marching through a treescape toward a fortress bastion, with much human action simply and astutely captured in the surging crowd of soldiers.

In Lorrain’s cattle, landscapes, cityscapes, rocks, seaports and trees, we see a world long gone that thankfully is preserved for us to relive in this fortuitous exhibit. The Clark’s acquisition of these works adds enormously to the institution’s growing prestige.

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