New York

Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell

Various Locations

Two exhibitions of painting and sculpture by Frederic Remington (1861–1909) also ask it, although in a greatly attenuated form. The first was shown in Oshkosh and Minneapolis before coming east to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.; and the second was the final show of the past season at Wildenstein. At Wildenstein, Remington had to share the billing with Charles M. Russell, but despite initial misgivings I thought in the end that the effect was beneficial, oddly enough. The point is that Russell is not an artist at all, and seeing how Remington handles the same subjects as Russell I went away feeling all the more strongly that Remington is. It is something one needs to be reminded of, since his subjects are so unsympathetic to most people who have a serious interest in art, and since the man himself seems to have been beyond belief: by comparison, Teddy Roosevelt was a quivering orchid. Remington had no training, no intellect, and for that matter not very much intelligence—he painted by instinct, and out of a sensitivity that he was quite unaware of, except perhaps to deny it.

Of course, one need not take his work solely as painting: he himself seems to have intended it as a kind of anecdotal, if unsentimental, documentation of folkway, legend and petite histoire, nostalgic only to the extent that he viewed it as and knew it to be Americana. But it is easily possible to take his work as painting, and if you do you realize how close his style was to that of Winslow Homer, whom he seems to resemble more than any other American painter. His compositions nearly always depend on the same kind of diagonals as Homer’s, but while Homer may perhaps have gotten this idea from Japanese prints (that was the suggestion of the late Albert TenEyck Gardner) Remington didn’t get it from anyone. I doubt also that he got his color from anyone, but it is the same range of quiet, dry oranges, umbers and ultramarines that one finds in the early Homer—he always manages to avoid the hot, shrill oranges and siennas of most “Western” painters, like Russell or Moran—and the rich greys and browns of Homer’s later years also have their parallel in Remington, especially in such nearly monochromatic works as Fr. Marquette Discovering the Mississippi, a bit reminiscent of the greys and browns of Manet’s early work, when he was so much under the spell of Velazquez.

Manet, Velazquez? I know it can sound grotesque, and I don’t mean to suggest that Remington—unlike Bingham—was thinking of this sort of thing, but it does seem to me that in this painting, as in others done with a similar palette, Remington’s color is not far inferior to Homer’s, and that since it is well within the realm of what we are agreed to call art it can legitimately be compared with that of other artists, legitimately enough for the question to arise about the effect on an artist’s art of his culture; for of course the most interesting thing about Remington is that the artist he is should have had the ideals he had.

The Last Cavalier depicts a cavalry trooper riding across the Plains with a background of spectral crusaders and conquistadores riding across behind him. Remington thought, in a way not so very unlike what we have seen in Bingham, that his subjects had the same dignity as association gave to those earlier exploits which he evokes. I think one has to admit that, at least in fair measure, he was right: the experience of the American frontier was a terribly important one, and not just for Americans—Chateaubriand and Baudelaire were also among those to be fascinated by it. The question is not whether or not it made a considerable impact on the imagination, but whether that impact had the human richness and cultural depth of the crusades or the scope of the 16th-century expeditions of discovery or conquest and, consequently, whether the theme could even possibly nourish an art of the same caliber. It is a question we have to ask of much contemporary art, also, but no longer just in America. It is not only a question of degree but of kind: one must not say that the Western experience (I mean that of the Plains), was lacking in history, but one can wonder whether it had that kind of history we call Western in the broader sense, by which we mean what began with the Book of Genesis. I think that perhaps for it to be incorporated into that history took some time. Remington’s achievement can be measured by the very real way in which he helped to incorporate it into that larger history; its limitation, partly by the accident that he came much too early for it to have been assimilated when he painted. But that was his luck. No doubt, had more been implicit in his subjects than there was when he painted them, the limitations of his abilities would have been cruelly apparent; but for what he was dealing with he does very well.

Jerrold Lanes