Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Pretty Mother of the Night, by Frederic Remington

We continue our look at Western artist Frederic Remington (1861-1909) with a picture very different from the frenetic and violent A Dash for the Timber: Pretty Mother of the Night.
Following his first commercial sales to Harper’s Weekly, Remington went to rural Peabody, Kansas, to become a sheep rancher.  He quickly found out the life in Kansas was boring, isolated and rougher than he anticipated.  An Easterner at heart, he was never really completely at home in the wilderness. His inheritance dissipated from the failed venture, Remington returned home.

His mother loaned him enough money to go to Kansas City and start a hardware business.  However, some kind of swindle (the details have never really been clear), made the business fail.  He took what money he had left and invested as half-owner in a saloon.  He also married his New York sweetheart Eva Caten and brought her to Kansas City.
Eva was as unhappy in the saloon business as Remington was in the sheep business.  In addition, she showed little interest or appreciation in his art, and left him to return to New York.  This desertion may have served as something of a wakeup call to Remington, who started to sketch and paint in earnest.

His painting created greater success for him than any of his business ventures, and he soon identified as an artist.  He returned to New York and reunited with Eva in Brooklyn.  He studied at the Art Students League in New York and improved his technique.
At this time, there was a fear in the East that the great open spaces of the West were closing down, and that the pageant of the American West was drawing to a close.  Remington was able to capitalize on that by submitting work to Harper’s Weekly and Collier’s, documenting his recent (and largely exaggerated) Western experiences.  Eastern editors took him for the genuine article, and started sending him back to the West to chronicle its final days.

Between 1885 and 1888 Remington made a number of trips to the American Southwest, principally to cover the U.S. Cavalry and its pursuit of the Apaches. He also followed the Cavalry in pursuit of the renegade Indian Geronimo.  The stark landscape and dramatic human events he encountered there greatly influenced his artistic development. Remington filled his diaries with observations, made countless field sketches, took many photographs with the latest equipment, and collected numerous artifacts to use in his paintings.
In the eternal comparisons between Remington and Charles Russell (1864-1926), one of the most interesting points is their respective feelings toward the American Indian.  Russell genuinely liked Indians – to him, they were just as much a symbol of freedom and living-in-nature as the American cowboy.  He learned the exacting sign language (he and his wife used it as both a private code and a party trick), and even camped with them for extended periods.  Though he never shied from depicting the occasional savagery of the Indian, he also reveled in his beauty, capability and stoicism.

It was an entirely different story with Remington.  Most of his interactions with the Indians were while he was covering the Indian Wars in the company of the U.S. Cavalry.  They were never anything less than the enemy – wily, unscrupulous, untrustworthy and … alien.  There are few positive depictions of the Indians in Remington’s work.  That is why Pretty Mother of the Night (oil on board) is such a remarkable picture.  Seldom has he portrayed the Indian with such a sympathetic eye.
Pretty Mother of the Night is best labeled a nocturne – its explores the technical and aesthetic difficulties of painting nighttime pictures.  (It is a feat at which Remington would excel.)  Painted around 1900, this picture was meant to serve as an illustration for a novel he had recently written called The Way of the Indian.  In the novel the hero, White Otter, addresses the moon (Pretty Mother of the Night) after successfully completing a test of manhood. 

Aside from the lack of the frenetic energy in a painting like A Dash for the Timber, look at the other things that Remington does differently.  A Dash for the Timber details man, horse and landscape with an almost photographic attention to detail.  Here, Remington uses a significant change in compositional technique.  Though beautifully rendered, the horses, Indians and landscape are all done with an almost Impressionist lack of detail. 
Also … Just look at how he poses the subjects and what he’s doing with them.  If the landscape is barren and empty, Remington underscores the hardness of the landscape by the lean, almost skeletal sparseness of the Indians.  These are not well-fed warrior princes, but, rather, people of the land barely squeezing a living from it.

Also, too, look at how he compares the barren immensity of the landscape and its two dots of life with the immensity of the heavens with its corresponding dots of light.  Remington here underscores the quiet miracle of life, both here on earth, and in the heavens.

More Remington tomorrow!



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