Scoop in Portland: Remington, Homer Shining Online
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Those of us who love art wonder whether we will ever again be able to spend a day in an art museum letting the imagination roam through worlds opened by great paintings. Museums closed for months to guard against the coronavirus are now opening but with strict rules of mask wearing and social distancing, one-way lines through the galleries. How I yearn for the days when, as a night watchman at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, I had its galleries to myself.
Now technology has opened those vistas again. I have spent this week several glorious hours in the Portland Museum of Art exploring — “virtually” — the marvelous show “Mythmakers: The Art of Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington.” I was transported by technology that recreates the experience of being alone, free to wander in the illuminated galleries at night.
The way to get to the exhibition is by clicking on this link. Then, in full screen, land on the faint circles which appear on the floor to line up a painting. Zoom forward to see details, and to read the wall text, zoom out to see the painting from a distance just as if you were in the gallery. It’s not perfect but it suggests a future of exhibitions, open at all times to anyone anywhere who can get on the internet.
This is the first time these two artists have ever been shown together. They are not exact contemporaries. Homer was born in 1836, Remington in 1861. Homer outlived Remington by a year, dying in 1910. Both had been war correspondents and illustrators. Homer reported and painted the Civil War. Remington painted the U. S. army in action against the Apaches and in the later the Spanish American War.
They both did illustrations for popular magazines. Remington also wrote articles, short-stories, and novels. To my mind more remains of the popular illustrator in his work than Homer’s. In this he is like N. C. Wyeth. Americans had a voracious appetite for romantic stories about the West and Remington was eager to satisfy it.
Both artists owned cameras and used them. Remington used the camera on his frequent sketching and painting trips to the West, bringing back material and ideas to paint in his studio in New York pictures that capture scenes of astonishing invention, dramatic action and feeling.
No one had ever painted horses in full gallop with such accuracy. The stop action sequential photographs of Edweard Muybridge showed for the first time that the only time all four legs are off the ground at the same time is when they are all collected under the body of the horse for a brief moment. Remington’s sympathetic mastery of the horse as a means of expression is a titanic achievement.
“A Dash for the Timber” shows a group of eight cavalrymen fleeing from Indians, their frantic horses about to burst through the frame to escape pursuit. One could study the horses to understand the emotions behind a Remington painting. Exhibited at the National Academy in 1889 this canvas gave a boost to Remington’s career.
Next to it hangs Homer’s “Undertow,” where two men are rescuing two women from the sea, another life or death situation. Homer envisions the rescue in classical Greek monumentality.
Rescue from sea peril is a constant theme in Homer, but the artist is at his best in the series of paintings of figures by the sea or the sea alone. Familiar paintings like “Weatherbeaten” and “The West Wind,” “Coast in Winter,” and “West Point, Prout’s Neck” make this a great show. It includes wonderful watercolors, particularly “The Guide,” paddling under the overhanging gloom of immense forest trees.
Homer’s “Camp Fire” shows two fishermen (rumored to be Homer and his brother Charles) resting in a makeshift shelter at night just like that which the writer known as Nessmuk commends to us in his 1888,“Woodcraft.” It suggests that camping in the Adirondacks is a way to heal the harms of urban industrial life.
Remington’s Nocturnes are lyrical and evocative. In “Shotgun Hospitality,” three armed Indians have appeared around the campfire of a solitary wagoner. They have the upper hand, and he is in excruciating uncertainty as to what his next move should be.
“In From the Night Herd” shows a cowboy returning to camp among his sleeping companions sprawled on the ground illuminated by the light of a campfire. One unforgettable painting is “Moonlight, Wolf,” a sudden encounter with a stationary wolf by a stream in the moonlight under the stars.
“Mythmakers” is a beautifully curated exhibition of some of the finest paintings of both artists. These great works celebrate something that has been lost in the industrialization and urbanization of life, something for which we have an instinctive yearning — a closeness to nature that was one of the attractions of America in the first place. They remind me of why, much as we loved Boston, my wife and I finally struck out for the Maine wilderness two decades ago.
Mr. Babb, a painter of landscapes, cityscapes, and portraits and a contributing editor of The New York Sun, maintains his studio in Sumner, Maine.
The exhibition “Mythmakers: The Art of Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington” is up until November 29, 2020, at the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine.
Images: Winslow Homer, “The West Wind,” 1891. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.
Frederic Remington, “The Stampede,” 1908. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma