Clark explores Remington’s iconic Old West

Cowboys, tumbleweeds, saloons – these images that conjure up the old American West pale in comparison to the eminent artistic perspective of Frederic Remington, who is most remembered for his iconic depictions of rugged frontier life in the western United States. Remington Looking West at the Clark Art Institute, open now through May 4, features the works of the well-known sculptor, painter and illustrator.

While the museum’s namesakes, Sterling and Francine Clark, are perhaps better known for their collections of French impressionist paintings, they also had an affinity for Remington. The Clark’s newest exhibition displays not only many of his famous works, but accompanies them with sketches and designs that provide glimpses into the artist’s creative process.

In the late 19th century, Remington established himself as a virtual authority on all things related to the American West, creating depictions of the landscape’s danger and intrigue that captivated the imaginations of Americans on the East coast. Rather than simply showcasing the iconic works of the painter and sculptor, the Clark exhibit takes a much more comprehensive look at Remington’s creative process and what exactly led him to achieve prominence and fame within the genre.

Housed in gorgeous galleries painted the color of Remington’s works – rich terra cottas and deep teals – viewers are immediately transported to a realm that greatly contrasts with snowy Williamstown.

The works on exhibit epitomize several facets of Remington’s style – the confrontational and exhilarating versus the subtle and alluring. Two oil paintings, “Aiding a Comrade (Past All Surgery)” and “Dismounted – The Fourth Troopers Moving the Led Horses,” both from 1890, typify the technique of using perspective to jar viewers, as they dynamically depict horses charging directly at the viewer.

Contrastingly, the night images painted in “A Reconnaissance” c. 1902, “Indian Scouts at Evening” c. 1906 and “Friends or Foes? (The Scout)” c. 1902-1905 all illustrate foreboding scenes that indicate an elusive danger lurking in the future. Both sets of paintings, despite dramatically different color schemes and lighting techniques, share Remington’s scrupulous attention to details like pebbles, hair and clothing, that give his work a startling realism and believability as distinct moments in Western history.

Remington was deeply aware of the power of his images and strove to foster this believability, as is evidenced by the collection of reference materials also included in the exhibition at the Clark. Scrapbooks that include drawings of horses in motion, preparatory sketches for later paintings and a photo of Remington working alongside his finished products serve as a reminder of the real man behind the mythical view of Western America that he is largely responsible for envisioning.

In addition to paintings, Remington Looking West also features two of the artist’s most popular bronze sculptures, “Broncho Buster” and “The Wounded Bunkie,” created in 1895 and 1896, respectively. The controlled and stoic expression of the cowboy riding the wild and untamed horse of “Broncho Buster” is again reminiscent of Remington’s popular conception of the West: fearless and unshakeable frontiersmen gradually taking control over a wild and untamed land of fierce nature.

These three-dimensional, visceral moments also tell elaborate stories through instantaneous flashes; “The Wounded Bunkie” captures the moment after a soldier is shot, with both horses still in motion so that only one hoof grazes the ground, and the looming inevitability of mortality lurks in a skull on the ground below them. Remington was an amateur sculptor with no prior experience who simply decided to take up sculpture to further immortalize himself in an unfading art form, and the detailed realism and technical complexity of these sculptures proves it was an excellent risk.

No one-trick pony, Remington also authored hundreds of fiction and nonfiction stories on the West, such as “John Ermine of the Yellowstone”, which later became a Broadway show and film. As an illustrator, Remington produced over 2,700 illustrations that appeared in publications such as Harper’s Monthly as well as a variety of historical books and records, some of which are also on display at the Clark.

The realism fashioned by Remington in his detailed works lent authenticity to the complex fictions he created. Archetypal images of a ferocious and intimidating Native American warrior (“The Defiance,” c. 1890) and a recklessly brave cowboy (“Cowboy,” c. 1890) are reoccurring fixtures of his work. These themes left profound impressions on the American public and permanently shaped their perceptions of this land they had never experienced for themselves.

To viewers, Remington’s work popularized not just what the West looked like in actuality, but what it stood for – adventure, ambition and the raw and dangerous, all overseen by cowboys who viewed events from the back of sun-bronzed horses on immense landscapes with sky blue horizons and terra cotta soil.

Remington’s romanticized perception of the American West produced a mythology of archetypes that manifested American values of the period. As a selection of the artist’s work, Remington Looking West excels in its diversity, and as a portrait of the artist and his techniques, as it sets itself apart from the typical exhibition in its comprehensiveness and intrigue.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *