Friday, March 8, 2013

A Pack Train, by Frederic Remington

We close our weeklong look at Frederic Remington (1861-1909) with another of his nocturnes, A Pack Train, painted in 1909 (about 36x27). 
To pick up Remington’s story, his success as a Western painter made him the darling of Western Army officers fighting in the Indian Wars.  He was often travelling with them, usually with General Nelson Miles.  Remington touted the “heroism” of the military after the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, in South Dakota, where 150 Sioux, mostly women and children, were murdered by the U.S. Army. 

Remington continued on his frequent trips around the U.S. and Mexico, painting and writing books and articles on the West.  He wooed many celebrities and politicians – forging an important friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, for instance – but he was never able to break into the entrenched artistic establishment.  Partly this was because of his endless self-publicizing (which, for an interesting comparison, was also one of the problems with Whistler), and partly because he was viewed as a singularly difficult man (which, for an interesting comparison, was also one of the problems with most of the artists covered in The Jade Sphinx).
Remington died in 1909, the day after Christmas, following an emergency appendectomy that led to peritonitis.  It was not helped by the fact that he weighed in the neighborhood of 300 pounds and had lived a very high life.

A Pack Train is another attempt by Remington to paint nighttime scenes.  He does this by using a largely viridian palette, and contrasting larger and darker shades to make up his figures.  There is no crystal-clear delineation of the mules, packs or rider, but the overall impression is unmistakable.  Remington also masterfully captures the quality of shadows cast by moonlight – Remington’s shadows are never black, brown or gray, but shades of blue, green or purple.  He painted with both his brain and his optic nerve.
Two things are going on with this picture.  First off, the sense of how alone this man is.  The landscape around his is enormous and falls back to great distances of emptiness.  However, they sky above, also immense, is filled with stars and other points of light – life also separated by incalculable distances.

Also there is the sense of menace so often found in Remington’s work.  Though there is no clear danger depicted, the wary turn of the cowboy’s head and the sense of isolation and vulnerability in the dark is overwhelming.  Whether delivering supplies or transporting everything he owns personally, no one looking at the pictures wishes he was the driver.  Even the donkeys seem to be beaten down by care or worry.  It’s a remarkably emotional picture executed in a deceptively simple manner.

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