Smithsonian curator’s talk complements ‘West’ exhibit

In conjunction with “Remington Looks West,” an exhibition on painter Frederic Remington and his visions of the American West, William H. Truettner ’57, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, spoke at the Clark Art Institute this past Sunday in a lecture entitled “Creating and Collecting the Old West.”

A renowned curator with a special interest in 18th and 19th century American painting and art of the American West, Truettner has overseen numerous seminal exhibitions at the Smithsonian since 1965. Of these exhibitions, perhaps the most controversial was “The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920” (1991), which asked novel questions about the mythology that has permeated American depictions of the West and posited a troubling deconstruction of the heroic hegemony of the American frontier legacy. Truettner’s work set a great precedent for the Remington exhibition at the Clark, and his lecture emphasized the historical context of the works and the European vocabularies upon which they drew.

Truettner framed his discussion of the European and distinctly American vocabularies employed in depictions of the American West through George de Forest Brush’s 1884 painting, “The Picture Writer’s Story.” Brush, who received his academic training in France, painted this scene of an elder picture writer from a Northern Great Plains tribe instructing two young tribesmen of the next generation.

To depict this scene, Brush overtly portrayed the subject in the muscular pose of Michelangelo’s Sibyl from the Sistine Chapel, and one of the sitters in Adam’s slack and skinny sprawled posture. This light-hearted allusion to the Italian Renaissance, while elevating the painting to the lofty importance of the Sistine Chapel ceiling also undercuts significant issues surrounding treatment of Native Americans at the time. With this example of American West as fiction, Truettner placed Remington within the framework of 19th century painters, who are “not confronting current problems, but retrospective narratives.”

While Remington subscribed to this same mythic conception of the West in his earlier works, his later works reveal a jaded and wary approach to this subject matter. In particular, “Friends or Foes? (The Scout)” speaks directly to the duality of façade. Truettner noted the change in focus from tremendous action and vigor of typical Western paintings like “Past All Surgery (Aiding a Comrade)” and the shift toward a less confident contemplation of an uncertain present in the American West. The tense horse and rider in “The Scout” show neither the brazen confidence nor the undying energy of his earlier works, and reveal a new phase of painting in Remington’s oeuvre.

Truettner’s discussion of art collecting and acquisition, which often is no more than a dull record of ownership, was instead a highly apt penetration into the American politics that accompany these works, and specifically the personal politics of the museum’s namesake, Sterling Clark. The works of Remington and his contemporaries enjoyed great popularity among art collectors in the wake of World War II, as a glorified vestige of manifest destiny and as an affirmation of American capitalism.

However, Truettner pointed out that Clark was no entrepreneur, but rather an aesthete of a conservative political temperament. According to Clark’s diary entries from the 1930s, he was deeply concerned with Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal and the new role of the government – even to the point that he considered leaving the country. With this same conservative sensibility, Clark opened his museum in Williamstown, Mass., because he felt the location was the safest from what he thought to be the imminent threat of an atomic attack. For Clark, the works of Remington were a respite from this anxiety because they depicted the free and open society of the West.

As Truettner argued in his lecture, the influence of politics upon Clark’s collections reveal important truths about the constantly changing significances of iconic figures in American Western art, which serve always as a vessel for the new pragmatic politics of the day.