Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Remington, Russell and the Language of Western Art
November 19, 2000 - January 28, 2001
This exhibition provides a comparative look through 96 paintings and sculptures at the art and lives of two paragons of 19th century American western art, Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. Although they never met, Remington and Russell were constantly compared during and after their lifetimes by the public and the press. Remington enjoyed the more broadly national reputation as a purveyor of frontier themes through art, but Russell had a supremely devoted regional following and held sway for more years than Remington did. They were jointly responsible for creating the image of a mythic American West, and so is it understandable that they have been thought of as compatriots and are frequently discussed as a compatible, or at least intellectually and spiritually collegial, pair. (left: Davis and Sanford, Portrait of Frederic Remington (detail), c. 1902, photograph, 7 7/8 x 5 inches, Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdenburg, NY; right: A. O. Gregory, Studio Portrait of Charles M. Russell (detail), 1907, photograph, 9 1/4 x 7 1/4 inches, National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, Oklahoma City, OK, Joe DeYong Collection))
Nothing could be further from the truth. Theirs was not a unified vision. Although they worked in and eulogized the West as the central theme in their art, they saw that region from entirely different points of view. They worked at their craft in order to provide themselves with a livelihood, yet their patrons were for the most part quite different Their attitudes toward life, toward fellow artists and art in general, toward history, native peoples of the West, nature, progress, and even their own selves were miles apart. This exhibition will place the two artists within the context of 19th century American art and demonstrate how they contributed, each in his own unique way, to the very rich, fresh and invigorating artistic climate of the era. (left: Photographer unknown, Charles Russell Painting in His Studio, 1910, photograph, 6 3/4 x 8 inches, Taylor Museum, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, CO, Britzman Collection; right: Photographer unknown, Frederic Remington Painting at Fort Robinson, 1905, photograph, Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdenburg, NY)
Organized by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, the exhibition is curated by Peter Hassrick, Charles M. Russell Professor of American Western Art and Director of the Western Arts Study Center at the University of Oklahoma, Norman. A fully illustrated color catalogue written by Hassrick will accompany the exhibition.
Excerpt from the Catalogue Essay, by Peter Hassrick
New York City. It was absolutely the last place on earth that Charles Russell wanted to be in the winter of 1904. What to many from America's hinterlands might have been a welcome escape, an invigorating cultural lift, amounted to an uncomfortable and rather alienating experience for this middle-aged Montanan, this gentle iconoclast of the northwestern prairies. It was a place where he did not fit -- the city of excess and indifference that, in fact, symbolized to Russell a great many things he despised. "New York is all right," Russell reported to his hometown newspaper when he returned to Great Falls in mid-February that year, "but not for me. It's too big and there are too many tall teepees." He anguished about the bread lines he had passed. They were "a tough sight." And the fact that "you've got to be a millionaire to be anybody" rankled his western egalitarian sensitivities. "My advice, to anybody that does not love home, is to just go down and live in New York for a while. He'll sure love home then." (left: Charles M. Russell, The Buffalo Herd, c. 1890, oil on board, 17 3/4 x 23 3/4 inches, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, WY, Gift of William E. Weiss)
left to right all Charles M. Russell (1864-1926) paintings: Salute of the Robe Trade, 1920, oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 47 1/4 inches, Gilcrease Museum, 0137-1625; The Slick Ear, 1914, oil on canvas, 30 x 33 1/2 inches, Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, 1985.83; A Desparate Stand, 1898, oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 36 1/8 inches, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1961.158; Buffalo Coat, 1908, oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 15 inches, Gilcrease Museum, 0137.1621; Cowboy Bargaining for an Indian Girl, 1895, oil on canvas, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, Gift of Shirley Austin, Class of 1924, P.961.261
Russell had gone to New York at the invitation of a group of illustrators who worked and resided there. "I met a lot of artists and illustrators", Russell remarked later. "They are a mighty fine lot of fellows and they treated me out of sight."
There was one important New York artist whom Russell did not meet at that time however: Frederic Remington. Urbane and poised, he lived north of the city in New Rochelle, but conducted most of his business as an artist in Manhattan and moved quite comfortably with its bustling cadence. For over a decade, Remington had been recognized for his reputation, though not entirely unassailable, as the East's singular artistic champion of subjects related to the West. "It is a fact that admits of no question," the art critic William A. Coffin had written in 1892, "that Eastern people have formed their conceptions of what the Far-Western life is like more from what they have seen in Mr. Remington's pictures than from any other source . . . ."
left to right all Frederic Remington (1861-1909) paintings: The Smoke Signal, c. 1908, oil on canvas, 30 3/8 x 48 1/4 inches, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; The Buffalo Hunt, 1890, oil on canvas, 34 x 49 inches, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming, Gift of William E. Weiss; Bull Fight in Mexico (also titled Corrida), 1889, oil on canvas, 24 x 32 inches, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Sterling Morton to the Preston Morton Collection, 1960.78; The Discovery, 1905, oil on canvas, Gilcrease Museum, 0127.2303)
In 1904, Remington was still fairly secure in this place of honor, even though he had recently lost ground in some quarters. But what was potentially more threatening to Remington's station was an assault from the West itself in the form of a person who, in his presentation of western themes through art, could convince Western, as well as Eastern, audiences of their aesthetic merit and material veracity. That person was Charles Russell, a self-effacing, demurely provincial, small-town humorist and raconteur, whose bowed legs, high-heeled boots, and shy demeanor could hardly carry him up Fifth Avenue. But, nonetheless, his paintings and bronzes would capture the public fancy and set him in place to share the national limelight with Remington into the next one hundred years and beyond.
This exhibition and volume recount the story of that shared limelight and the interplay and tensions involved. Who were these two men, how did their art interact, why and how did they win the lionization of generations and, despite their fundamental differences, why are they so inextricably joined in the public mind as the paragons of western art? Of all the temptations known to students and aficionados of western American art, none is more frequently succumbed to than the desire to compare the life and talents of the two titans. Almost without exception, everyone who treats the subject of western art in broad terms is drawn to the inevitable pairing of these two names in the process. And when the two names are placed in the same sentence and followed, as invariably they are, by such descriptive clauses as "the most celebrated artists of the West," then the author and reader are often teased into making comparative judgments on the relative merits of the two.
It was K. Ross Toole, past Director of the Montana Historical Society, who had the perception to point out that "the real power of Russell's works does not reside in technique. It resides in the fact that he felt, to the very depths of his being, that an era was dying -- and that it meant something." Remington too worked and lived on that premise. It was Theodore Roosevelt who eulogized that because of Remington's devotion, similar to the bygone saga of the American West, "the soldier, the cowboy and rancher, the Indian, the horse and the cattle of the plains, will live in his pictures for all time." Together these two artists have given us a pictorial record of the West unprecedented in its richness of observation, imagination and artistry. In fact, they fashioned America's image of the vanished western frontier. Though intending only to relate visually what had gone before, they ultimately became as much creators as purveyors of the western theme. They had been present at the dawning of a new era in the West, the 1880s and 1890s, and a fundamentally transformative time. They were willing, interested and able to address artistically the changing scene that Martha Sandweiss has aptly suggested as one of the principle "shifts in Western history; the point at which a frontier of boundless possibilities became in the American imagination a more mundane region whose uniqueness lay in its past."
And as they approached that complex task, each responsive to the evolving tableau with his own style, perspective and technical methodologies, they did so with an independence of spirit and a conscious avoidance of canonical norms. They both died before their time and at the peak of their powers. Though Russell lived much longer than Remington, he was slower to develop artistically. He, like Remington, had much space and artistic energy to develop had he been granted a longer life. Today, as the art historian Michael Duty has concluded, "When we conjure up . . . Western images, we tend to think of Remington and Russell first." Their impact has been pervasive.
Biography of Peter H. Hassrick
Peter H. Hassrick is the Charles M. Russell Professor of American Art at the University of Oklahoma and Director of the University's Western Art Study Center in Norman, Oklahoma. He was the founding Director of The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, leading it from inception to opening in sixteen months. For twenty years prior, Hassrick served as the Director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Under his guidance, the Center gained accreditation by the American Association of Museums and grew dynamically in physical and fiscal dimensions to become the largest museum of art and history between Minneapolis and San Francisco. From 1965, to 1976, he served as Curator of Collections at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
Hassrick was born in Philadelphia and raised in Denver. He earned a B.A. in History from the University of Colorado and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Denver, with a concentration in 19fh century and early 20th century American art. Hassrick's devotion to the history and art of the American West has inspired numerous exhibitions, lectures and publications that he has produced throughout his career. His books include Frederic Remington (1973), The Way West (1977), The Rocky Mountains: A Vision for Artists in the 19th Century (1983) with Patricia Trenton, Treasures of the Old West (1984), Charles Russell (1989), Frederic Remington: A Catalogue Raisonné of Oils, Watercolors and Drawings (1966) with Melissa Webster, and The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (1997).
Hassrick is married to Elizabeth Drake and resides in Norman, Oklahoma.
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