Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Day With Frederic Remington

I was indeed blessed in so many ways during the period that my younger brother Donnie visited us here in Rockport... and not just in terms of the warmth we felt in having him present, but as well in terms of other events and the many places that we visited together while he was here. No... it was not a grand tour of our old neighbourhood and our common Brockville, Ontario roots. Both of us have long been away from having a need to retrace earlier footsteps back there except to visit my folks grave. We both have moved and grown on in our separate life journeys to new people... places and significant spaces.

Don had only one request in our vacation itinerary. That was to cross the river to Ogdensburg, NY to tour the Frederic Remington Museum. Don is an ardent horseman who actively has saddled up each winter to participate in "cutting out" competitions in Yuma Arizona where he winters. He proudly shares our Grandfather Sherman's passion and horseman genes... or jeans - both work... and his love of these intelligent creatures. Remington surely felt the same... as was evident in his magnificent visual record of the role that the horse played in taming the Wild West and in Plains Indian life. It has been recorded that he commented that he hoped his epitaph might read, "He knew the horse." That certainly could be said of him!

I had toured the Remington Gallery earlier with my daughter Allison on one of her research-gathering expeditions to support a book publication dedicated to historical river architecture along both side of the St Lawrence and The Thousand Islands. I did enjoy the visit ... but mainly that enjoyment was based upon sharing the experience one-on-one with Allison. On this occasion though, I was to able to glean new insights and reflection into my own work through viewing the masterful Remington masterpieces.... merely a nose distance away. There were none of the usual high profile gallery restrictions re: space from the work, or even taking photographs. All of the very knowledgeable staff of volunteers on hand were ever so willing to chat and share their knowledge with us. All of these factors allowed me to come away excited and refreshed from the new knowledge which this experience revealed to me.

 I made my way slowly around the gallery several times. On each occasion, I  saw a different facet of the exhibition and Remington's own artistic growth and development. On my first tour around, I was overwhelmed by the power of his draughtsmanship... attention to detail and always impeccable design and composition. That awe was further deepened when my eye caught sight of these early sketchbook pages which Remington completed as a 15 year old cadet at the Highland Military Academy in October of 1876. Though it is obvious in these sketches that the romance and idealism of war and a soldiering life intrigued him greatly, he held no academic aspirations and could not tolerate its rigid restrictions. He felt more committed to the two "D's" dreaming and drawing.

The sketches shown here certainly confirm his unusual interest in military themes... but with a "rather average" proficiency and undeveloped skill in illustration. This sketch book is the launch pad for his voyage of self-discovery and mastery. It is totally amazing to compare these first humble and youthful attempts to the exceptionally competent level that he was able to achieve in less than ten years.We all have to start somewhere I guess... no matter where that might end!

He went of to Yale and excelled on the football field and did gain some art training, but left Yale... again feeling constricted and unmotivated by college life. His restless spirit yearned for more... and that included the desire to marry his future wife Eva. Her father scorned his hand in marriage request... citing the young man's financial instability. Determined to win the day,  Remington headed to the west... vowing to return a "successful millionaire" and to win Eva's hand in marriage.

Notes! Notes! Notes... Notans! Notans! Notans!... Sketch! Sketch! Sketch! = EXPERIENCE

He did in fact immerse himself fully into western cowboy life...mastering many of the skills of that lifestyle and during this crucial period, he built up a huge portfolio of work based upon his many contacts and experiences. By 1888, his drawing ability had improved to a level significant enough to garner him illustration assignments on a regular basis... working in pen and ink for Harper's Weekly and Century Magazine... just to name a few. Black and white illustration work allowed him to find a "day job"... but Remington realized early on that development of colour was essential to expanding into the fine art area.

His contrite inability to "become schooled" continued as he searched on his own to create his own palette and painting style in oils. As I toured and looked more closely at the exhibition seeking to understand his path to this end... it became obvious that he merely approached the colour issue by gradually shifting the spectrum tonally using watercolour and India ink washes and the "grisaille" techniques. Both approaches helped him to develop a  painting process based upon a monochromatic (one colour/black) approach. This learning strategy helped him create nuances and variations to  model form... volume... and create light and shadow.

Watercolour monochromatic painting. Note the attention to detail and the overall move of calm he creates in his varied poses. He creates a "moment"... one of of rest from a long and dry ride on the plains.

Another grisaille piece which compositionally juxtaposes a static foreground pair with a diagonally moving middle ground group receding to the distance ... all wedged by a wall of firs and distant mountains. Again notice the individual and realistic quality that he creates for each figure in the composition.

Black and white interpretation greatly enhanced Remington's ability to enter the activity of adding paint to drawing and design. Colour, as you well know and understand complicates most artists' initial entry into a development of a painting style. I share Remington's belief that beginning painting from this perspective is empowering. Books on colour theory are good for some artists... but others like R and I do not thrive on this approach. Painting experience... is as valuable as schooling... and "book learning." Set your own tempo and goals. Develop self-discipline by scheduling regular times to paint. Just plan... and paint!

I could spend  months of posting my thoughts and impressions following each tour, but I hope now to encapsulate my findings with a quick summarizing view and check list on Remington's method:

1. He was passionate about his subjects... horses, cowboy life, the disappearing Wild West and Indian way of life, outdoor subjects and landscape painting
2. He developed his artistic tool box choosing his own ideas, time frame and preferred mediums
3. While he shared his own  path with other notables such as NC Wyeth and Charlie Russell, he remained true to his own personal search for expression rather than to copy... never comprising his ideals
4. He travelled broadly in America and Canada... but spurned things European and embraced painterly  impressionism and other movements which shaped western Art in his time only near the end of his life
5.He focused upon and constantly refined basic elements which shape all "good art"... resisting playing it safe
6. He worked prolifically and maintained a very demanding schedule in painting and sculpting, producing nearly three thousand works of art and 23 sculptures
7. He made time to seek solitude to think... observe and gather ideas from the natural world

I have been overwhelmed by this unique learning opportunity and will long benefit from this experience. The opportunity to probe the painting surfaces of his many paintings... particularly his St Lawrence River landscapes and his sublime and ethereal nocturnes (at which he excels). These in particular offer future food for thought and direction for my own work. I better understand my own process and directions... something that I too struggle with on my journey.

What Remington achieved in his too short forty-eight year life span provides a model for all of us who struggle to find our Selves. Art is a journey and should not be considered a destination. Such a point of view marks the end of learning and future growth and development. Here is part of the collection that I viewed. I offer it to you for your own search!

This is a statement he made in regard to creating his bronze sculptures. Each of those sculptures freeze the action... every creature and figure anatomically correct... a bounty of exact detail to wrap these forms in unparalleled excellence. The same can be said for his paintings in each of the genres.

Mortal wounding and ambush on patrol...

Pointers making their way through the icy waters and shrouded in fog... one moment and one floe at a time

" Hauling in the Gill Net"... frozen upon the very crest of a wave... a moment in time

"Howl of the Weather"... the bow penetrating the wave... frozen at the end of a long prying stroke

Midnight Rendez-vous faces fade into the shadows... lost edges prevail over line... an intimate moment

Remington's Boat House-Studio on Chippewa Bay, St Lawrence River

Quebec Club ... shadowed shore captures the transient end of day light... a golden moment

The Rough rider Charge on San Juan Hill... an important oeuvre... one which catapulted Teddy Roosevelt in his gubernatorial campaign. Reminiscent of the quality of great Civil War and British commemorative battle paintings. Many figures capturing many instants.

This "cowboy coffee" moment painting captures that round the campfire end of day ritual that these range riders cherished. It is Remington's last painting... and fittingly... it remains unfinished. Such should be the ending note in the lives and work for all artists.... an unfinished moment! Our last masterpiece remains ever in the making!

Good painting!... To ALL!!


  1. I have to admit that I've always loved Remington's work and I thank you for this essay on his life and work, Bruce. I'd love to visit this gallery myself. Maybe one of these days I can manage it?! Did he ever marry his Eva? Why did he die so young? Of course, I can look it up myself! The one painting of his studio made me look three times...why? I thought it was one of your paintings! Similar styles evident in that piece, for sure.

  2. Good morning Sherry!... Good to hear from you and glad to know that you enjoyed my "Day with Remington" post. Yes... he did marry Eva and she was his staunch supporter even after his too early departure. She and a woman friend actually were instrumental in creating this gallery in the friend's Ogdensburg home.

    Unfortunately for Remington... he lived and worked hard and enjoyed "the good life" well beyond moderation. He gained excessive weight but despite this fact maintained his obsession to work and play without let up. He diedafter an emergency operation for a case of acute appendicitis the day after Christmas, 1909.

    Thank you for the compliment Sherry. Though I am in no fashion a Remington... I have followed a journey that in many ways parallels his and at times have caught glimpses of places where our work intersected. I feel that I share his deep and unabiding passion for embracing art... and as likely as well... his obsessive compulsion to live life perhaps too fully for my own good.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Your input continues to inspire me further to continue this blog. There have been days of late that I have seriously considered putting it to sleep in order to devote myself more fully to painting. Time will tell.

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,

  3. Bruce - this is such an informative article on Remington - I loved his "End of the Trail" makes me want to cry whenever I see the renditions. Thanks for sharing. So glad you had a great visit with your brother as well. Have a lovely spring day.

  4. Hi there Wendy!... Glad that Remington added some "Spring" into your life as well. Many sculptors create highly realistic scuptures but few... if any capture the spirit and essence of horse and rider as they interact together. I too am moved by the sheer magic of his creations... either in paint... clay or bronze.

    Have a great day!

    Warmest regards,

  5. Thank you for your gift of Remington this morning here in the highlands of Scotland. It started out raining heavily and now the sun is shining with clear blue skies chasing away the clouds. I do know Remington and have read about his life before but it was just great to remember and spend time with his work this morning as I waited for a phone call to come through. Remington had his path to follow he brought wonderful illustrations worked out in location during wars, he also brought his love of painting in the more impressionist style which he pursued in the last part of his life to amaze and enrich our lives. I hope you do continue your blog as it is a special contribution to those who want to know about a painter's life. You are able to share your days with us and also you share the things that inspire you as an artist. You have a wonderful family that is important to you too and I am sure they support you on your painting path in life. We are your friends here in blogging land it would be sad to not hear your news. Maybe you could post just once or twice a month and maybe write at the end of a day when you have more time. It will be great to hear from you on your blog when you can find the time. Thank you for all the work involved in your blog about Remington I really do appreciate it, it has been a lovely morning.

  6. Good morning Lass!... So nice to hear that the Remington visit brought some spring joy into your own life... so far away!

    Sharing the things that you have mentioned in your comment really encapsulates the very reasons thast I spend time posting... and to have similarly impassioned artists gain from my writing and sharings uplifts and motivates me to continue. As well... I must add that writing as a creative expression is as intoxicating for me as my painting urge. In fact ... they most often have always worked in tandem... hence the blog title "Journaling With Paint".

    Seeing the work of iconic artists I admire like Remington,Wyeth, et al stimulates my own creative force... but no less importantly than the sharing with passionately striving contemporaries such yourself who share my present path.

    Thank you Caroline for continuing to visit and to share your own art... experienbces and journey. You continue to inspire and uplift me in a very tangible and meaningful way.

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,

  7. Hi Bruce, thanks for a very interesting post. I had heard of Remington and seen some of his work, in passing, but now I know much more. I can see similarities with Winslow Homer, who I know also did work for Harper's, especially in the canoeing pieces. I wonder whether they had any connection, or is it just that they had a similar response to the subject matter?

    All the best,

  8. Good evening Keith!... Thanks for dropping by and for again adding your own gems to the post!

    Yes... Homer and Remington were indeed contemporaries. Both painted in New York State... with Homer watercolouring in the Adirondack Mountain part of the state and Remington on The Saint Lawrence River. Both loved the outdoors life of camping out... fishing and hunting. Both were equal illustration and painting masters in their high realism... colour and skill as draughtsmen. I'm sure that they were well aware of each other...maybe met... but I can't say with any certainty. I'll check that one out!

    Good eye there Keith... astute and educated... as always!

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,