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Drawing on sixty artworks, Natural Forces: Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington, presented by the Denver Art Museum (DAM), sought to explore the artists’ visual responses to an era that was simultaneously rife with war, displacement and genocide of Indigenous peoples, racial inequities, and economic downturns while also hopeful for the possibilities of a prosperous future. The exhibit was co-organized by a team of four curators, including the Denver Art Museum’s Thomas Brent Smith, curator and director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art, and Jennifer R. Henneman, associate curator of Western American art; Diana Greenwold, curator of American art at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine; and Maggie Adler, curator at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.
The careers of Winslow Homer (1836–1910) and Frederic Remington (1861–1909) overlapped, as both worked during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they likely never met. Organized thematically in six galleries, the exhibition created a connection between the two artists. The curators engaged visitors both visually and through interpretive content—in both English and Spanish—exploring the ways in which the artists depicted ideas of strength, upheaval, calm, vulnerability, and anxiety within the larger themes and symbolism of masculinity, the wildness of nature, American history, humanity, and mortality. Although successful in their endeavors, the curators neglected to thoughtfully and deeply reflect on the complexities and problematic depictions of Native Americans in many of the works shown.
With masks on and socially distanced, when I viewed the show, visitors entered the galleries and were met with deep red walls, exhibition text that included a short synopsis of the zeitgeist of the era, and four paintings, two by each artist. Homer’s seascape Weatherbeaten (1894) pictured lurking, dark gray clouds hovering above turbulent waves crashing on a rocky shore. Next to this was Remington’s The Stampede (1908), showing a rushing crowd of cattle and cowboys running through a wind-whipping rainstorm, lightning in the distance. Both paintings are rich in drama and emotion, illustrating the wilds of nature in both land and sea. Across from those works were Homer’s The West Wind (1891) and Remington’s The Fall of the Cowboy (1895). Much like Weatherbeaten, The West Wind depicts ominous, stormy skies, a windswept field, and white, crashing waves, while a lone figure stands on the shore facing away from the viewer. Again, Remington paints cowboys, this time in a scene of desolation and solemnity, a chill in the air and a storm on the horizon. The tonal similarities of these four paintings were striking, and the symbolism in the works set the stage for the remainder of the exhibition.
The next gallery, titled “War and Illustration,” looked at both artists’ careers in illustration. As visitors walked in, two wall-size photographs of Remington and Homer flanked the gallery entryway. This room was heavy with historical documents and ephemera and an array of works including drawings, paintings, and prints. The curators did a wonderful job of juxtaposing the artists, displaying Homer on one side of the gallery and Remington on the other, making clear the commonalities and differences in their work: Remington’s exciting, cinema-like scenes were in clear contrast to Homer’s more static pieces. Both artists spent their early careers as wartime illustrators, working for popular magazines of the time. Homer, twenty-five years Remington’s senior, produced scenes from the American Civil War, while decades later Remington documented Native Americans in the Southwest and the Spanish-American War in the Philippines. Homer and Remington were both self-taught, and these early experiences as illustrators influenced their work throughout their careers.
The third gallery, “Up North,” explored the rugged landscapes of the Northeast, drawing on the personal experiences of both artists, who hunted, fished, and camped in the area. The gallery, painted a dark slate blue, was hung with the artists’ works next to one another, allowing the visitor to move from one painting to the next and notice similarities and differences. Some of the pieces in this gallery showed the artists’ use of experimental techniques and styles, as illustrated by a wall dedicated to Remington’s loose, impressionistic en plein air paintings. Homer worked with watercolor, showing sportsmen in solitude with nature. These paintings were the least dramatic and emotional of the show.
“Natural Forces,” the fourth gallery visitors encountered, featured works of “man versus nature.” This room showcased the most intense and emotive paintings of the exhibition: crashing waves, stoic figures, vulnerability, and loss, all common metaphors of the era. What was most striking in this gallery was the play of sea and land—Homer’s beautiful, emotional seascapes, the whirling of the air, the taste of sea salt on one’s lips, in opposition to Remington’s representations of battles between Indigenous peoples and cowboys, action-packed scenes set within a dry, stale desert landscape. On the label text for Remington’s piece Indian Warfare (1908), the curators acknowledged that Remington’s work reinforces stereotypes and ignores the diversity of Indigenous peoples and their communities, ultimately contributing to invisibility and erasure. This is one instance of only a few in which the curators addressed issues concerning the depiction of Native Americans in Remington’s paintings and sculpture.
The last gallery, “Forever Looming,” displayed later, more mature works by the artists. These moody and dark paintings signaled a move from intense drama in the previous gallery to the illuminating glow of a campfire, or a reflection of the moon in an animal’s eye. The portrayal of night and the symbolism it invokes was striking here. In many ways, these were the most introspective works in the show. At the end of his career, Remington moved from suspenseful, theatrical compositions to more realistic scenes. Homer continued his wildlife and landscape themes, but with a darker tone than previously seen in the exhibition. The show ended with two late paintings of sunsets: Homer’s West Point, Prout’s Neck (1900) and Remington’s Sunset on the Plains (ca. 1905). The artists died within a year of each another, Remington at forty-eight in 1909 and Homer at seventy-four in 1910.
Although the visitor experience was altered due to COVID-19 restrictions—limited access to the museum, face mask requirements, and social distancing—this did not detract from my visit. Most galleries were scant with visitors, making the experience more intimate. As a whole, this was a beautiful exhibition that provided a much-needed respite during a very difficult time. The curators succeeded in providing the museumgoer with strong representative artworks that fell within the themes of American history, nature, masculinity, and the cycles of life. Allowing visitors to make their own connections between what they knew of the artists’ era and the works on display was commendable. However, additional interpretive content bringing the problematic depiction of Native Americans in Remington’s work to the forefront would have linked his works to the exhibition’s narrative while also furthering the discussion of Indigenous peoples’ lived experiences. Further, although the introductory wall text hinted at a time period of hope, many of the works chosen did not express those ideals. Rather, they represented turbulence, unease, and anxiety, all of which were indeed characteristic of the era. Reflecting on the historical context of this exhibition, comparing it to the tempestuousness of the current era, and exploring the themes and symbolism as they relate to our current time, I conclude this exhibition was more relevant than the curators may have imagined.
Due to the closure of the museum from mid-March through mid-June 2020 because of COVID-19, the exhibition was delayed and opened on June 26. Prior to the opening date, the DAM published an online exhibition guide, providing an online venue for their visitors. After debuting at the DAM, the exhibition traveled to the Portland Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. A lovely 224-page exhibition catalog, published in collaboration with Yale University Press, was printed in conjunction with the exhibit and features five essays.
Associate Registrar and Collections Manager, University of Colorado Art Museum, Boulder, Colorado