Updated: May 7
Yes, this is a painting by Frederic Remington (1861-1909), he of the illustrative images of the 19th century American West, full of cowboys, bucking broncos, and horse sculptures. A cousin of the founder of Remington Arms that made the rifle that "conquered" the West, as they so often claimed, he once remarked, "Cowboys are cash with me." This painting does not seem to be within that context at all. True, it was part of a novel he wrote called, The Way of the Indian, but it is far more sparse than his previous paintings, which were largely detailed illustrations. Here we see two young Native American men riding in a vast, solemn, moonlit landscape, with one young man, the protagonist, White Otter, raising his arms in gratitude to the Pretty Mother of the Night (the moon), for he had just passed his initiation into manhood. The scene has that ghostly atmosphere that comes with the night. The moonlight has largely taken the familiar colors away, leaving almost everything in a gray/blue scale. Yet the viewer focuses on the reverent gratitude shown by White Otter, as the two young men's way home is lit by the Pretty Mother. It seems as though the energy of the night has given her blessing. The puzzle is what moved Remington to this type of painting and these sensitivities.
Frederic Remington, born in Canton, New York, took off for Montana in 1880, leaving Yale when he came into an inheritance after his father's death that same year. He first tried to be a cattle rancher. When that failed, he opened a saloon, which also went bust. However, he always sketched and painted his surroundings and noted down the life around him. When Harper Brothers began buying his sketches and later his writing as well, he became their star reporter on the "Wild West," as seen in the terms of those days. He was an illustrator and sculptor, as well as a type of soldier journalist relating in painting the life of the American cavalry, all done in sunny colors and great detail, as befits the illustration of a narrative.
However, some things happened around 1900, when he was once again in the eastern United States. He lost his contract with Harpers; his novels were not greatly successful; and taste in painting turned to Maxfield Parrish type fantasies. Remington said sadly that he wanted to paint landscapes and sunsets, but all the public wanted was cowboys and Indians. His upset with his career as more or less a painter of illustrations culminated in the burning of hundreds of his illustrations in 1908, as if to say to the Universe that illustration was no longer a part of his life. Yet it was during this time from 1900 till his death in 1909 that he actually won his first critical acclaim from the eastern art establishment. He did it by giving people the cowboys and Indians they wanted. However, he got rid of the details of illustration and let the viewer tell the story.
Marshall McLuhan, the 1960s guru of communication in his book, The Medium Is The Message, talks of hot and cool media. Hot media gives all the details, visual, sound, etc., like movies do. Cool media let the individual interact and create details, as one does when reading a story or even listening to a program. Basically that is what Remington did in his nocturnes. He turned off the bright light of the sun that allows us to see everything and let the shadows of the night engage the viewer's mind. He stripped away detail and left the story open for the viewer to complete. Take for example the painting below, Moonlight Wolf, 1909.
The wolf sees you. The question is what happens next? Is the wolf alone, and if so, might he decide to run off rather than challenge a human? Or will he in one lone, bone-chilling, howl call the rest of the pack? Is the viewer a potential predator or potential prey? All you know is that you have been spotted. Remington created only a starry night sky, the ghostly white moonlight, a shadowy landscape, and a little stream of water. The rest is up to you and the wolf.
Here we see a lone traveler in a snowy setting, riding at night in the wind and on what appears to be a tired horse. We see the snow in the distant mountains and stuck to the remaining dead grasses in the foreground. If the mountains are in the west, as they are where I live in Colorado, it means this rider is headed south, so at least his back is to that biting, wintry, north wind. Small comfort that is if he has not found food on the hunt. One imagines he is hungry, and that he may be far from home, where others wait for him to bring them food to eat. Always a storyteller, Remington tells us a lot with his title, The Luckless Hunter. It starts the mind filling in the details.
Not all of his nocturnes were so edgy. In Evening on a Canadian Lake, 1905, we get to enjoy the colors of the sunset, as Remington once again shows off his mastery of color.
Two men and a dog in a birch canoe navigate the twilight, which Remington represents in both brilliant blue and inky dark blue gray. The warm colors of the canoe pick up the fading light of a setting sun, as do the faces of the men. The white on the dog's chest along with the white trim on the canoe stand out in that dimming light. Though this is a peaceful moment, the viewer must certainly wonder why they are so late making camp for the night? Will they find space on a shore that is covered with trees right to the water's edge? Will they find enough loose wood for a fire? What animals lurk in those dense woods?
Remington did some 70 nocturnes between 1900 and 1909. It is said he saw a show of nocturnes by a painter named Charles Rollo Peters in 1899 when Remington returned to the East. Peters had been influenced by the nocturnes of an American living abroad, James McNeill Whistler. Remington seems to have been inspired by this as a way to gain the attention of the art establishment with a more sophisticated approach to painting, though he reached back into his well-known theme of the American West. His nocturnes were shown in Knoedler Gallery in New York City, in 1908, in a successful show that prompted Remington to say, "I have landed among the painters, and well up, too!" Perhaps it was that success that prompted the burning of his many illustrations in the same year. He obviously was turning over a new leaf.
Unfortunately, we are robbed of his further development. An attack of appendicitis in 1909 caused him to have an appendectomy which was followed by peritonitis. He died from the effects of it in December, 1909. Here the preliminary version of one of his last paintings, The Outlier, 1909. Once again we are left to guess the story of this painting. Who is this lone rider in the twilight? Could it be an avatar for the spirit of Remington, himself?
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Sources for this article from the National Gallery of Art, 2003 Exhibition Remington Nocturnes, the Color of the Night.
Wall Street Journal article, "Frederic Remington Nocturnes, Color of the Night" by Ann E. Berman.
Paintings are all in public domain.
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