- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

Like most, I have camped outside at night and fumbled around in a pitch-black house, but after seeing Frederic Remington's night paintings collected in "Frederic Remington: The Color of Night" at the National Gallery of Art, I'll never look at darkness the same way again.

Remington (1861-1909) captured nuances of night superbly. He painted certain scenes with shades of velvet black, as in "An Argument With the Town Marshall." Others glowed with silvery-white moonlight, such as "Voice of the Hills" (1905-1906), which showed a wolf baying at the moon.

He loved the warmth of campfires and the way they brought people, even enemies, together. "Untitled, Around the Campfire" (Remington's last work) and "Apache Medicine Song" showed settlers and Indians communing together over fire.

In "Shotgun Hospitality," three Indians approached a lone white man at his campfire. Although armed with a shotgun, he looks apprehensive: His horses are tethered at some distance, and the Indians look hungry.

A few years later, Remington created the especially gripping "Stampede by Lightning." Here, against a background of hard, slanting rain, echoed by the zigzag lightning behind, a cowboy tries to head off a herd of crazed cattle.

Light and color shine everywhere in the show. Stars twinkle. The moon floods images of winter nights. The artist inundated the very large "Coming to the Call" (circa 1905) with lemon-yellows, melon-oranges and plum lavenders. Suffused with yellows, oranges, russets and blacks, "The Gossips" shows two Indians stopping to chat before returning to their village of tepees. The setting sun bathes river and sky in a golden light, contrasted with the Earth's russets and trees' darker blacks.

Remington's nocturnal paintings are less well-known than his sculptures of thundering horses topped by cowboys "flying" from their saddles. Fortunately, Nancy K. Anderson, exhibit curator and National Gallery associate curator of American and British Paintings, closely studied Remington's late work and seized an opportunity for an exhibit that turns up new ground in handsome and informative ways.

Granted, there have been myriad exhibits of Remington's paintings and drawings. After all, he did more than 3,000. Sellers pitch his work online with come-ons such as "Best Prices on the Web" and "For Fast and Friendly Service Please Call Toll Free," but these are the overexposed Remingtons.

"Though Remington is famous as the primary image maker of the historic West," says Ms. Anderson, "we wanted people to come to the exhibit with an open mind, to consider him in a fresh light. This is a show that's never been done before."

In the last decade of his life, the artist experimented with colors and wrestled with the challenges of painting night and darkness. The result was an extraordinary series of paintings concentrating on what Ms. Anderson terms "the color of night."

Remington had begun his career as an illustrator, but near the turn of the century he decided to become a "fine artist." After making the transition, he worried that an illustrator's restrictive palette of blacks, whites and grays would damage his new efforts. Like the 19th-century French artist, Honore Daumier, the greatest satirical cartoonist of his day, Remington craved recognition as a serious painter and felt diminished by the "illustrator" label.

In tracing his transition from illustrator to painter, it is instructive to contrast "The 'Hold-Up' " and "The Old Stage-Coach of the Plains" (1901), two of his early night scenes, which Ms. Anderson has helpfully placed at the exhibit's entry.

The artist created "The 'Hold-Up' " to illustrate a story in "Collier's Weekly," a mass circulation magazine. The black, gray and white painting focused on a young cavalry officer's silly claim that he could rob a stagecoach simply by flourishing sheep shears.

By contrast, when liberated from illustration's narrative constraints in such works as "Stage-Coach," Remington experimented with bold compositions and color. Barely under control, the horses and coach all but tumble out of the picture onto the museum floor.

High-art recognition finally arrived in 1905 when the important Knoedler Galleries gave Remington his first significant exhibit. A critic for American Art News wrote that the Knoedler's paintings proved him "now a painter and not an illustrator solely." Another reviewer observed "a new color note" in the artist's work.

He was now exhibiting what he called "nocturnes," although he claimed they had no connection with those of James McNeill Whistler, who had coined the term (also popular with such composers as Frederic Chopin) for the visual arts.

Remington publicly castigated Whistler's spare, atmospheric works, as he did the Impressionists Childe Hassam and J. Alden Weir of New York's "The Ten" school. Something of a curmudgeon, he downplayed any help he got from other painters, living or dead.

Of course, painting "night" was nothing new. It had a long, vibrant tradition beginning with the German Caspar David Friedrich, who painted couples admiring the moon. Thomas Cole, Martin Johnston Heade and Albert Pinkham Ryder continued the tradition here. Whistler advanced night painting in England, while Winslow Homer painted many night pictures during his stay in an English fishing village. In the early 20th century, photographers Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz made famous night photographs such as the "Flatiron Building" and "Savoy Hotel."

Remington added his own particular twists, as the exhibit demonstrates. The sense of danger and menace pervading the show were uniquely his. The artist also added a sense of narrative suspense, as when the Indians surprised the lone camper. It's hard to view this tableau and not wonder, "What happens next?" In "Taint on the Wind," six rearing coach horses evidently smell bears or wolves. Will they bolt? What happened to the driver and occupants of the carriage?

Remington's work, evoking a West that had already disappeared, is permeated by an unmistakably elegiac mood, but the painter's emotions ran even deeper. Ms. Anderson believes his work reflects his lingering distress from the Spanish-American War that he covered as an illustrator in Cuba in 1898, an experience he could never put behind him.

Remington didn't paint only night, he painted death as well. He died much too early, from an emergency appendectomy at age 48. If only he had had the time, he would, one supposes, have gone much, much further with these two inseparables darkness and death in later years. He certainly had the drive, and the talent.


WHAT: "Frederic Remington: The Color of Night"

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through July 13

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/842-6353

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