Remington labored to illumine the West

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The name Frederic Remington is synonymous with the American West. Remington (1861-1909) - renowned illustrator, sculptor, journalist, novelist, and painter - provided the American public with the visual vocabulary that defined the late 19th-century Western experience, the image bank for life on the prairie and plains. Through scores of illustrations in magazines like Harper's Weekly, he brought the frontier to the East in hand-drawn snapshots of a gritty, masculine world.

But Remington, himself an Easterner who only forayed West as an observer, was not satisfied with the fame his illustrations brought him. He wanted to be remembered as an artist of depth whose work would last.

So at the age of 38, Remington abandoned his popularized treatment of stage-coaches, cowboys, and native Americans that was fast becoming a cliché, and embarked on a serious aesthetic exploration of the uncharted territory of the Western night.

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From 1900 to 1909, Remington labored in his studio to produce a series of paintings called "nocturnes." These pictures explored Western life, not under the merciless sun of high noon, but in the more mysterious hours between dusk and dawn.

In the first-ever exhibit devoted to Remington's nocturnes ("Frederic Remington: The Color of Night"), the National Gallery has assembled 29 of the 70 canvases Remington produced that explore the nocturnal theme.

What is perhaps most striking about these unusual paintings is not their sense of darkness visible, but the ingenious ways in which brightness enters Remington's night.

How to paint "the silver sheen of moonlight" was an artistic challenge that Remington murmured over at some length in his diary. A bolt of lightning, the flash of gunpowder, the multihued glow of a campfire: All brought illumination to the painter's vision of a usually gray-green night that was not without stars or, as in "Moonlight, Wolf," the fluorescent glint of a wolf's eyes.

The iconic image pictured here, "The Scout: Friends or Foes?" is lit as though from within by cool, reflected moonlight on snow.

The native American scout leans forward in an eternal quest, as though to ask: What is in the darkness? The glow of snow, the stars, and the village lights seem to indicate an answer.

'Frederic Remington: The Color of Night' is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., until July 13. It will be at the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Okla., Aug. 10 to Nov. 9, and then at the Denver Art Museum Dec. 13 to March 14, 2004.

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