WILLIAMSTOWN - Others painted the American West before Frederic Remington. George Catlin made iconic portraits of Native Americans in the 1830s and '40s. Albert Bierstadt painted sweeping Western vistas from the 1850s to the 1870s.
But the sharp, concise exhibit "Remington Looking West" that curator Cody Hartley has organized at the Clark Art Institute reminds us that Remington painted the Wild West that became the stuff of pop-culture legend.
Remington (1861-1909) traveled around what is now Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Texas, Canada, and Mexico. But his base for much of his life was in and around New York City, where he made his name as an illustrator for major magazines and then as a fine-art painter, sculptor, and writer.
Remington's central subject was America's Indian wars of the second half of the 19th century, which were sparked by white colonization of the West. He had some firsthand knowledge, as he tagged along with General Nelson A. Miles on 1890 US Army campaigns against the Sioux in what is now South Dakota. Back home, Remington relied on his sketches and a collection of photos, scrapbooks, props, and others' accounts to give his works a sense of documentary realism, but his scenes should not be read as strictly factual.
His works of the 1880s and '90s thrill to the action. Two white riders gallop across a desert plain toward us as a third rider falls, apparently gravely wounded by Native Americans galloping close behind. Another canvas shows a lone Native American warrior on horseback defiantly raising his tomahawk. In nearly black-and-white paintings made to illustrate Miles's autobiography, a cavalry officer cockily strides through a line of riflemen, and Native Americans ride to attack what looks to be a wagon train.
In Remington's 1890 canvas "Dismounted: The Fourth Trooper Moving the Lead Horses," cavalry troops ride ranks of horses right at us, away from the line of dismounted riflemen lying along a rise in the background. The sun is bright, picking out crisp details of reins, buckles, and stirrups. Remington has an illustrator's knack for drama and careful framing. His main subjects are often the most high-contrast areas of his paintings. Here the first line of horses is practically silhouetted against a cloud of white dust.
Around 1900, Remington's tone turned elegiac, his colors moody, his focus softer. And he made a series of nocturnes that are his greatest works. He picked up some of this from American Impressionists, including his pal Childe Hassam. Also, by then the West had, so to speak, been won. One of the last significant clashes was the 1890 massacre of Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee by Army troops under Miles's command.
In Remington's painting "Friends or Foes? (The Scout)" (c. 1900-05), a bundled-up Native-American man, with a rifle across his lap, sits on a black horse and looks across a snowy moonlit plain toward a white village on the horizon. Whistler might have called it a symphony in blue and purple. The details have been pared down to such essentials as the horse's frosty breath. The crackling yarns of Remington's early work have evolved into mysteries. The horseman moves under cover of night - cold, isolated, endangered, humbled, but still proud.
Even at his best, Remington is a second-tier master. His scenes often have a stiffness, as if they are Buffalo Bill's Wild West reenactments. He never achieved the sharpness of observation, vivid technique, or grandeur of, say, Winslow Homer (as can be seen in Homer's works at the Clark).
But Remington fits into the grand American tradition of nostalgic longing for lost or endangered "golden eras." A West that had once been threateningly wild to white colonists, a place of unplowed earth and potentially hostile Native Americans, was growing tamed as trains came, whites developed the land, new communities of derby hats and smoking chimneys sprang up.
The old West could now be enjoyed as safe entertainment. And Remington had helped in the transition. His illustrations captured the public imagination. His 1902 book "John Ermine of the Yellowstone (Illustrated by the Author)" became a stage play in 1903 and a 1917 movie.
"I saw the living, breathing end of three American centuries of smoke and dust and sweat," Remington wrote in 1905, "and I now see quite another thing where it all took place, but it does not appeal to me."