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Arts & Life

Armed With Pencils and Sketchbooks, Artists In Upcoming DAM Exhibit Went To War

In its upcoming exhibition, "Natural Forces: Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington," the Denver Art Museum looks at how the two American artists were alike and different. It also focuses on each artist's time as a war correspondent, and how that influenced their later works.

While making names for themselves in the fine art world, both artists made their livings illustrating for Harper's Weekly, said Jennifer Henneman, associate curator of western American art.

Armed with pencils and paper, both were dispatched to the front lines in different wars. Artists, like writers, were correspondents, illustrating battles, as well as the day-to-day interactions of the soldiers.

"We take so much for granted with our digital technology, with photographic technology," Henneman said. "What's important to remember is that while photography was invented and developed during the 19th century - and became increasingly common in the home - it was not utilized in mass publications until the 20th century. It simply wasn't affordable or efficient to do so. So artists were called upon to do significant amounts of visual reporting - on the news, on daily life, on fashion, etc. And their visual images helped enliven the news, certainly for a middle class reading public across the nation."

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Credit Photos courtesy of the Denver Art Museum
Jennifer Henneman, associate curator of western American art, stands in front of Homer Winslow's painting "Fox Hunt."

Homer and Remington each worked as war correspondents for Harper's although at different times.

Between 1861 and 1865, Homer was embedded with the Army of the Potomac, the principal Union army, during the Civil War. His many and varied illustrations established him as a household name, Henneman said.

Alternately, in the mid-1880s, Remington actually got his start as a war correspondent illustrating the Apache Wars without seeing any battle. He had just returned from his first trip to the American West where he observed what would eventually become Arizona and New Mexico.

"Remington never saw any conflict related to the Apache Wars, but he did see the southwest," Henneman said. "So from New York City, he's able to depict saguaro cactuses, sombreros, the architectural details of the southwest that led easterners to believe he had a credible eyewitness account."

In his first illustration for Harper's, he depicted Apache scouts helping the U.S. Government find Geronimo.

"Remington didn't witness this," Henneman said. "But he is able to lend a kind of authenticity in the sense that he had absolutely been to the American southwest."

Later, in 1898, Remington was sent to Cuba to report from the front lines of the Spanish-American War. It was here that he, like Homer, gained greater perspective on the realities of war.

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Credit Photos courtesy of the Denver Art Museum
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Photos courtesy of the Denver Art Museum
Frederick Remington, "Dash for Timber", 1889

Remington, whose father had been a colonel in the Civil War, had glorified war up until he went to see it for himself, Henneman said.

"And that experience of the realities of warfare really changed his mind about the glory of war," she said, adding that after his time as a correspondent, Remington's style and mood changed dramatically.

In his earlier years, Remington's work, such as the 1889 painting "A Dash for the Timber," had a very detailed, finished look about it, Henneman said. After his time as a war correspondent, his style loosened and his color palette deepened and became more experimental. Some scholars have interpreted one of his best known series, the "nocturnes" - which focus on night time scenes - as influenced by his experience with war.

"These paintings are no longer dramatic and aggressive in some of the same ways that these earlier works are," Henneeman said. "They don't necessarily glorify warfare, conflict. They tend to leave questions unanswered."

Like the painting "Who Comes There?" in which a scouting party has stopped with one member pointing to something outside of the frame. The fact that the subject of the painting is outside of the work itself, creates a sense of unease, she said.

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Credit Photos courtesy of the Denver Art Museum
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Photos courtesy of the Denver Art Museum
Winslow Homer, "Sharpshooter", 1863

Similarly, Homer returned from the battle field to produce some of his most iconic work, including "The Sharpshooter." The painting shows a faceless man in a tree taking aim at an unseen target. Sharpshooting was a relatively new technology at the time, Henneman said.

"While Homer remained objective in his reporting, he later remembered in a letter that he had looked down a scope of a sharpshooting gun and he called sharpshooting as near to murder as anything the Army could have done," she said. "So, he really felt strongly about the realities of the war - whether North or South - had been profound. And in his work he doesn't ask us to make a decision necessarily - but he does ask us to contemplate the work at hand."

Post Civil War, Homer channeled feelings about loss, reconstruction, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives into his paintings, including "Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave" and "Snap the Whip." The later work, which shows a group of barefoot boys playing a game in front of a lush, green landscape, is a commentary on the possibilities after the war, Henneman said.

"This painting became emblematic of the hope of the healing nation," she said. "That while hundreds of thousands of men had perished in the war, there were yet, young American bodies, healthy bodies, who would grow up to become productive men. The landscape, which had been shattered in large regions in the U.S. - it was regenerating."

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Credit Photos courtesy of the Denver Art Museum
Winslow Homer, "Snap the Whip", 1872

"Natural Forces: Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington" will be on display at the Denver Art Museum April 1 through June 7.

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