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At Portland Museum of Art, two painters are a mythic mismatch

Winslow Homer's "The West Wind," from 1891.Courtesy Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts/Portland Museum of Art

PORTLAND, Maine — Not a few steps into “Mythmakers,” an exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art loosely centered on creaky notions of 19th-century American virility in the works of Frederic Remington and Winslow Homer, you’ll walk right into what amounts to an apology. “A note on Remington,” it reads, before explaining that the artist “wrote in disparaging terms about Indigenous communities, African Americans, Jews and Southern and Eastern Europeans.” And he was a charter member of a 19th-century ruling class who, sensing its lofty position under threat, “denigrated other communities to bolster their own sense of self.” You might notice there’s no such note on Homer, which makes sense. You’re already knee-deep in an exhibition of two artists whose work scarcely belongs on the same planet, let alone the same room.

If the intention of “Mythmakers,” is to shift Remington’s already-dubious place in American art from bad to worse, well, mission accomplished. The show begins with a short, potent arc of Homer’s early years, from nervy drawings he made while embedded for Harper’s Weekly with the Union Army during the Civil War through the painted splendor of his later retreat to the mountains and coastlines of New England. Within that introductory space, a pair of Remington paintings sit pressed between two of Homer’s absolute greatest works: “The West Wind,” from 1891, of a lone figure cresting a dune under an angry, enveloping sky; and “Weatherbeaten,” from 1894, maybe the most powerful of a late lifetime’s worth of paintings made at his studio on Prouts Neck, with the dark sea erupting in a violent explosion of spray against stone.


Winslow Homer "Weatherbeaten," from 1894.Courtesy Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute/Portland Museum of Art

No painter — none — comes away from that framing better off. For Remington, the comparison is withering, the worst of the worst — his frantic cowboy riding herd against an advancing storm in “The Stampede,” 1908, is a soupy mess of dark teal. “The Fall of the Cowboy,” 1895, with its forlorn horses on a snowy plain, is better, though thin and unresolved next to the captivating tumult that bookends it. You may as well put a stinkweed next to an orchid. The spellbinding depth of Homer’s work — lyrical, moody romanticism, colors radiant, light quavering dark to light; they are landscapes of the soul — makes Remington look amateurish and phony. And the worst is yet to come.


At the same time, I felt the museum was doing some necessary work. In a time of fractious change, with the culture in deep upheaval and historic shortcomings being acknowledged with pledges to do better, museums all over the country are struggling with how to engage with artists and subjects they’ve spent the better part of their histories ignoring. That’s resulted in some crucial correctives — the Museum of Fine Arts’s ongoing “Women Take the Floor,” an admission of the institution’s long history of falling short on collecting and showing women artists, or the Museum of Modern Art’s recent overhaul of its permanent collection to foreground both artists of color and women. But the rush to inclusion has also brought about ill-considered stumbles, one of them now unfolding at the Baltimore Museum of Art: It planned to start selling off big-name works from its collection on Wednesday to help pay for the acquisition of pieces by more women and people of color — a well-meaning plan that drew so much national outrage that the museum pulled its works just hours before an auction began.


In 2018, when the Baltimore museum first announced its plans, I admired the organization for being bold and decisive in a field marked by relentless incrementalism. When I sobered up, I felt differently, and here’s why: Museums make a record of taste as much as culture — two very different things — and their collections reflect the constant evolution of social priorities one generation to the next. Excavating those things over time can be painful, deeply unflattering work, but that’s the point: Moving forward without looking back invokes a willful blindness of convenience. As a society, we’re not one thing, then another. We are the sum of it all. Sacrifice the past to face only the future, a wise person once said, and don’t be surprised to repeat it. (The last part of the “Mythmakers” trigger warning says as much: “Conducted with care,” it reads, such efforts “can help in the work of re-interpreting and dismantling harmful stereotypes and systems of power.”)

Which brings us back to Remington. I tried — really, really tried — to content myself with just hating Remington as a painter. To be frank, it isn’t hard. A blunt and hamfisted colorist — who knew a painting could be bleak and garish at the same time? — Remington’s brushwork muddies up sky and ground, often leaving his figures floating in a yellowy-pink haze. A close inspection of the foreground in, say, “Fight for the Waterhole” (1903) leaves you cringing at his uncaring hand, as though he simply gave up on any illusion of depth.


Frederic Remington's "Fight for the Waterhole," from 1903.Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston/Portland Museum of Art

Remington loves his figures, lavishing attention on muscular steeds and rough-and-tumble cowboys, guns cocked, usually at Native Americans (in “Waterhole,” a ragged band of cowpokes lie prone in the dirt, rifles at the ready). Even so, Remington’s compositions are simplistic and rote; how many wide shots of galloping horses with riders firing at the predictably pursuing Native warriors can anyone take? Many, as it turned out; the inexhaustible self-promoter’s aggressive salesmanship of just these scenes made Remington very rich. And here’s where form and content inevitably meet: A thoroughly mediocre painter, he would have remained anonymous but for the relentless marketing of his facile fascinations. Now, as an advocate of unabashed racism, he’s instead a mediocre painter forever caught in the grip of history.

I should mention that “Mythmakers,” a joint project of the PMA, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and the Denver Art Museum, is nominally cast as a two-hander between men whose portrayals of the American wilderness helped build an identity for a country grappling with its sense of self in the aftermath of civil war. Both artists were self-taught (though only one a star student). Both began their careers illustrating magazines with crisply-drawn journalistic images — Homer of the Civil War, Remington of westward expansion. But even in that, they had little kinship. Homer carried all his life the burdens of war, a pall cast even on his sunniest scenes. Remington, a pretty clear adherent of Manifest Destiny, seemed to revel in the bloody business of settler incursion. His pictures are cinematic macho fantasies of violent conquest, all sun-bleached, hoof-thundering nihilism. (If you find an ounce of empathy or restraint in a single one of them, do let me know.)


Frederic Remington's "A Dash for the Timber," from 1889.Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas/Courtesy Portland Museum of Art

Did Homer tell tales? Of course — though some of his most important, and most relevant to this conversation, aren’t here. After the war, Homer embarked on an effort to paint the failures of Reconstruction in the South. He returned with quietly harrowing scenes of the lives of newly-liberated slaves. Among them are some of the most powerful figurative paintings he ever made — haunting observations of a broken place by a broken man. Homer’s subsequent retreat, first to Cape Ann and then further, to Maine, was an introspective journey, a refuge from a bleak and shattered world. In a time of rising complexity, Homer’s work was elegant, simple, almost elemental: a haggard outdoorsman paddling in solitude on a mountain lake (“The Guide,” 1889), a young woman gathering a net on a rocky shore (“The Fisher Girl,” 1894). His depictions of nature are often rough and violent, with humanity vulnerable, temporary, or absent. Even in the most muscular picture he ever made, “Undertow,” from 1886, of a pair of burly lifeguards pulling two women from the churning sea, there’s no sense of triumph; the picture, when seen in person, simmers with dread.

Winslow Homer's "Undertow," from 1886.Courtesy Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute/Portland Museum of Art

Homer’s mythology was melancholy romanticism, borrowed from forbears like John Constable but brought to life in a deeply personal effort to embrace his own smallness in the face of majestic earth and sea. Remington, meanwhile, was grandiose, his lack of contemplative ability a disqualifying trait for any claim to actual art.

Remington painted conquest fantasies and blaring clichés. “A Dash for the Timber,” from 1889, is a horrendous, hackneyed mess, cowboys thundering along a dusty plain firing rifles at the feathered Natives in pursuit. “Ridden Down,” from 1905-06, abandons an Indigenous man at the top of a desert mesa with his horse, cornered by a warring tribe — perpetuating the myth of a “vanishing” race. Like a lot of Remington’s work here, the piece has no emotional center, no sympathy, no heart. His apparently “mature” work, represented by a pair of fireside nocturnes, are cold and empty at their core. One scene, of a smug cowboy cozied up to the fire, rifle in his lap, while two Native American men stand swaddled in blankets nearby, is called “Shotgun Diplomacy.”

Remington’s the kind of artist you’d rather leave in the basement, a rotting remnant of an uglier time. The museums deserve credit for resisting that temptation. Not long ago, Remington was seen as important to the country’s cultural heritage. Now, he’s an embarrassment, but that doesn’t make him less important. It might even make him more.

But there’s a problem here, in that showing Remington next to Homer — who was himself imperfect, and whose portrayals of Black Americans were at times troubling, as a recent exhibition at Harvard Art Museums tried to point out — suggests a false equivalency, as though era and circumstance could put them on equal footing. They were and are not, then or now. Where Homer reached for transcendence, capturing with humility and genuine awe the primal force of a planet unmoved by human will, Remington was anchored to contested ground, a blithe propagandist for state-sponsored genocide.

So, sure: Let’s reconsider Remington. Let’s see him for what he was. And let’s remember that, in his day, his point of view was broadly embraced, even lauded. That’s how we move forward and learn. But do we really need to drag Homer into this? He does the duty of making Remington’s work look as poorly conceived as his many offensive beliefs, a painterly beatdown I more than slightly enjoyed. At the same time, the whole thing feels misconceived, pairing a marginally competent huckster with a master. Apples and oranges; same moment, different worlds. Any myth Remington tried to build was small and paper-thin, to be packaged and sold. Homer, I’m not convinced, ever made a myth for anyone but himself — a dark vision of a changing world so full and deep that, more than a century after his death, it can still swallow us whole.


At the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine, through Nov. 29. 207-775-6148; portlandmuseum.org.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.