“Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.”
For art lovers from Ottawa: If you haven’t already seen it, you might want to check out a neat little museum about an hour’s drive south of the City. It features a goodly collection of the work of one of the most notable North American creators of fine art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. You’ll need to take your passport though. The Frederic Remington Art Museum is located just across the St. Lawrence River in Ogdensburg, New York.
The museum is easy to find.
I drove down with a friend on a Sunday and spent an interesting hour and a half or so moving leisurely through the various galleries and inhaling the rarified air of Remington’s creativity. I thought it was well worth the trip and the $9.00 (U.S.) cost of admission.
The museum is easy to find. You beetle south down highway 416 from Ottawa and take the International Bridge over the river into New York State. Once you’ve been cleared to cross over the Canada-U.S. border, paid the $3.75 (Cdn $) toll and hung a right turn on Proctor Avenue going west into Ogdensburg, you’re about five minutes away. This time of the year you can probably find parking (at no cost) on Washington Street in front of the museum, as we did. From there, it’s a forty foot walk to the front steps.
Art experts have commented that his works, especially his oil paintings, tend to pose questions…
Frederic Remington (1861-1909) was a creative polymath. To those who would quibble with the term in this context, I make no apologies. He was an artist of extraordinary talent and ability; his creativity multi-faceted, and his talents deeply seated. He was an illustrator, a painter, a sculptor and a writer. Like the visual purity of a rare gemstone, the gift he was given shone flawless and clear through to the zygote at his centre.
Remington pushed out as an artist. Always testing, testing, testing the mediums he created in. In his works on the American old West, for which, arguably, he is best known today, he aptly captured the rawness and both the cultural and elemental menace of that period. Art experts have commented that his works, especially his oil paintings, tend to pose questions and I have found that to be the case as well when I look at his work.
“I know fine color when I see it but I just don’t get it and it’s maddening. I’m going to if I only live long enough.”
Many of the subjects and scenes, whether human or otherwise, have a quality of uncertainty about them. And in some it is as if there is a tinge of latent suspense layered in under the paint. This often shows up in scenes with a lone human or animal subject. They have been captured looking off into the distance, or at the viewer in anticipation of something to come. A person studying the work is left wondering, as if you are in the mind of the subject: what is going to happen here next?
In spite of good reviews of this work, Remington is on record as being frustrated with what he regarded as a shortfall in his ability to get it just right. He expressed this to a friend: “I’ve been trying to get color in my things and still I don’t get it. Why why why can’t I get it. The only reason I can find is that I’ve worked too long in black and white. I know fine color when I see it but I just don’t get it and it’s maddening. I’m going to if I only live long enough.”
In 2003, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. featured an exhibition of his nocturnes…
By the mid-1890s, he was already well known, respected and successful. But, ever challenging himself, in the last ten years of his life Remington shifted gears and created more than seventy nocturnes. He had been influenced by the work of an artist, Charles Rollo Peters, who himself had been influenced by the nocturnes of James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
If Remington may have been dissatisfied with this work (he claimed to struggle with getting the colour down exactly right), others weren’t. In 2003, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. featured an exhibition of his nocturnes (Frederic Remington: The Color of Night), the first such comprehensive look and recognition after his death, of this aspect of his artistry. The nocturnes are also covered in a book of the same name published by the Princeton University Press. There was so much more to Remington’s oeuvre, but these paintings alone vault him into a special place in art history.
And then there was his sculpture. He cast his work in bronze, using both the sand casting and lost wax methods. The pieces are exquisite in their detail. The museum at Ogdensburg gives a viewer an up-close look at this aspect of Remington’s artistry as there are a number of original bronzes on view in the galleries. In addition, there is a display showing, in steps, how he went about creating the work. It is complete with cutaways of the moulding, casting and finishing process.
Remington reached the pinnacle of his profession among North American artists of the nineteenth and twentieth century. His drawings featured in the leading periodicals of the period, including Century Magazine, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, Scribner’s and Harper’s Weekly, for which he won multiple awards. He also illustrated books by the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, who also became a personal friend and championed Remington’s work.
Remington’s bronze sculptures sold at Tiffany’s. No more need be said about that.
In addition to Remington’s commercial success during that time, his former home in Ridgefield, Connecticut is now a U.S. national historic landmark. His likeness appeared on a commemorative U.S. postage stamp in 1940 and a Liberty Ship that was built during World War II was christened SS Frederic Remington. There is also a U.S. post office building and a high school now named in his honour.
In 1999 one of Remington’s oils (A Reconnaissance) was auctioned for $5,172,500…
Today, Remington’s paintings and sculpture can be found in major museums in the United States, Canada (Canadian Museum of Civilization) and Europe. So it is a curiosity (to me) why his original work has not (yet) apparently reached the stratospheric selling prices of some of his contemporaries.
In 1999 one of Remington’s oils (A Reconnaissance) was auctioned for $5,172,500 and a bronze sculpture (The Wounded Bunkie) sold at auction for $5,641,000. In 2011 the Center for the Arts in Jackson, Wyoming auctioned a Remington oil painting (He Lay Where He Had Been Jerked, Still as a Log) for $1,583,000 and a bronze sculpture (Bronco Buster #16) sold for $488,750. Not small dollars, surely, but nothing like the $30+ million paid for Winslow Homer’s Lost on the Grand Banks in 1998.
It might have something to do with his earliest subject matter. Remington is probably best known for his depictions of horses, native Americans and soldiers and, as subjects, they are of narrower appeal than the landscapes, nudes and portraiture of other artists of the same period. However Remington explored more than the American old West in his work. If one views his creative output through the lens of l’art pour l’art,—for its intrinsic value and on its technical merit—he is an underappreciated artist. It is probably more likely that he was robbed of thirty or more years of innovative productivity by ill health and by sheer bad luck; a burst appendix.
Remington died at the relatively young age of forty-eight…
Remington died at the relatively young age of forty-eight of peritonitis after surgery, when he was just coming into his creative maturity. When you look at his body of work in the context of the output of other acclaimed artists who lived and worked to a great old age, you are left with a sense of what must have been personal loss and forfeiture. Surely he would have been disappointed as he left the mortal realm. Only he knew what he might have accomplished in his later years, but it is easy to speculate.
I think if he had lived even twenty more years we would have seen yet another creative reinventing, an evolution into a more humanistic period, an entirely new and different path. Just a hunch. Others might think differently. By all means, go check out Remington’s work at the museum in Ogdensburg. And prepare to be charmed. REG
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