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‘The Color of Night’

Exhibit Explores Darker Side of Remington

When it came to the mythic West of cowboys, cavalrymen and American Indians, of open space and boundless vistas, of untapped riches and glory, nobody did it better than Frederic Remington.

The painter, illustrator, journalist, sculptor and writer was so prolific in depicting this milieu, one critic went so far as to say most Americans got their West from Remington.

That said, “Frederic Remington: The Color of Night,” a new exhibit opening Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, invokes a far more complicated and potentially lethal realm than the tantalizing promises of “manifest destiny” as peddled by the purveyors of popular culture at the time would have had us believe.

Indeed, in many of the 29 nocturnes displayed, “the shadow of death” creeps into the dark frames, casting a veil of anxiety over the canvases. Wolves growl. Scouts scope the horizon for approaching enemies. A stagecoach tumbles into an uncertain future. This is a world of Manichean struggle, where enemies are taken dead or alive — more George W. Bush than George H.W. Bush.

Child of the East

Frederic Sackrider Remington was born in Canton, N.Y., in 1861 just as the Civil War ripped the nation in half. His father went to war and came back a hero. Remington, a child of the East, attended military school, then headed to Yale to study art and play football. After the sudden death of his father in 1880, Remington dropped out of the university, soon heading West to try his hand — unsuccessfully — at sheep ranching and saloon keeping. At the same time, he began churning out rough sketches of the Far West, which soon found favor at Harper Brothers. Within a few years, Remington had sculpted, sketched and wrote himself into the position of pre-eminent chronicler of frontier life.

But Remington wanted more. The outbreak of war with Spain in 1898 provided him with the perfect context in which to observe “the greatest thing which men are called on to do” as a war correspondent in Cuba. The “splendid little war” turned out to be not so splendid after all, and disillusionment set in. Not long after the Battle of San Juan Hill, during which his friend Theodore Roosevelt made his famous charge, a profoundly changed Remington retreated to the United States, eventually buying an island in the St. Lawrence River.

The Coming Darkness

This is where “The Color of Night” comes in. Upon his return to the United States, Remington turned his attention to advancing the seriousness of his art, this time revisiting his Western subject with a more nuanced approach. Ironically, the exhibit picks up on an almost comical note — a last hurrah for the “black and white man” inside Remington — with a black, gray and white image of a stagecoach being held up by a cavalryman with a pair of shears.

The nearby painting “Pretty Mother of the Night — White Otter is No Longer a Boy” is more emblematic of the deeper changes occurring in Remington’s oeuvre. In it, two American Indians on ponies emerge from a gray-black prairie, the sooty flesh tones and indigo sky reflecting the clash between the painter’s black and white heritage and the technicolor devotee within.

Remington’s nocturnes “harken back to an earlier time when moonlight, firelight and candlelight broke the spell of darkness,” the exhibition notes, and in these paintings Remington uses varying shades of light to achieve an aura of imminent danger, often suggesting questions he has no intention of answering. In “Coming to the Call,” a hunter crouched in a crescent of a canoe aims his rifle at a peaceful moose standing at the water’s edge. In “A Reconnaissance,” two cavalrymen peer over a snowbank, on the lookout for lurking dangers. Likewise, in “Trail of the Shod Horse,” a thin line of footprints in the foreground presage coming peril.

Achieving Success

By 1908, Remington had hit his stride, declared himself proficient at limning the “silver sheen of moonlight” and began exhibiting works at New York’s Knoedler Galleries. The critics — long skeptical — conceded to praise him, with one writing, “it would be difficult to congratulate Mr. Remington too warmly” for his “night scenes.”

Among the standouts from this period, “Apache Scouts Listening” — a murky view reminiscent of a night vision dispatch from the Iraqi theater — depicts a group of American Indians and cavalrymen awaiting an unseen threat. “The Luckless Hunter,” a haunting portrait of a lone rider moving across a barren, snowy landscape, stands out as an homage to the isolating desolation of the Western life.

Still, not every work from this period elicits a somber undercurrent. In “The Gossips,” for example, a pair of loquacious Indians on horseback take a break after a long day to engage in a “you go girl” moment.

Remington’s premature death in 1909 at the age of 48 brought to a close a decade during which he had experimented with the ambiguity of the Western experience — producing more than 70 nocturnes. By that time, the mythic West existed only in the American consciousness — a distant dream from which the country had long ago awakened. Remington, however, lived long enough to realize the fulfillment of his artistic dream. Just one year before his passing he proclaimed, “I have landed among the painters and well up too.”

“Frederic Remington: The Color of Night” runs from April 13 to July 13 in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art before traveling to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla., and the Denver Art Museum. The exhibit, sponsored by Target Stores, is organized in conjunction with the Gilcrease. During its run at the National Gallery, curator Nancy Anderson will give a lecture on “The Color of Night” at 2 p.m. April 20 in the East Building auditorium. A symposium titled “The Art of Darkness: Frederic Remington’s Nocturnes” will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. April 26 and will feature lectures by a variety of art authorities, including William Truettner, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s senior curator. All events are free and open to the public.

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