‘Mythmakers: The Art of Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington” at the Portland Museum of Art (through Nov. 29) had an in-house nickname as PMA was putting the show together along with the Denver Art Museum and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.
The curators called it “The Curmudgeon and the Jerk.”
The curmudgeon is Winslow Homer (1836-1910), the ever-popular reclusive snob from Prouts Neck. The jerk is Frederic Remington (1861-1909), the racist pseudo-cowboy from New Rochelle, New York, who created America’s cowboy-and-Indian fantasy.
Homer and Remington seem something of an artistic odd couple, but as “Mythmakers” demonstrates, they were both artists and illustrators who helped promulgate the myths of macho America.
“Myth” is a squirreling term, denoting both that which is deeply true and that which is patently false. The American Myth is one of manifest destiny, self-made men, and rugged individualists yearning to live free. The American truth is a country grounded in the extermination of Native people, the enslavement of Blacks, and the exploitation of the environment and immigrant labor.
To its credit, “Mythmakers” does not shy away from the prejudices embodied in the art of Homer and Remington, artists who would probably have supported Donald Trump, a president who is the apotheosis of the cult of white masculinity Homer and Remington helped to create.
“Frederic Remington wrote in disparaging terms about Indigenous communities, African-Americans, Jews, and Southern and Eastern Europeans,” notes a museum wall label. “He was among a large group of white politicians, writers, and businessmen who perceived an erosion of their power at the end of the 19th century. They denigrated other communities to bolster their own sense of self.”
“I’ve got some Winchesters,” Remington once wrote in a letter, “and when the massacring begins which you speak of, I can get my share of ’em and what’s more I will. Jews – injuns – Chinamen – Italians – Huns, the rubbish of the earth I hate.”
Rather than banish the redneck Remington to the purgatory of white male cancel culture, “Mythmakers” pairs him with the somewhat less offensive Homer in an examination of the good ol’ boy 19th-century culture that still defines America. Remington’s cowboy and Indian paintings and sculptures, and Homer’s sporting pictures, are icons of a man’s world – a white man’s world to be more exact.
To put the popular art of the two popular American artists in some context, the Portland Museum of Art adds Community Voices wall labels to many of the works on display. Micmac historian Jennifer Pictou, for example, comments on Remington’s The Cheyenne sculpture of a Native American racing on horseback.
“Frederic Remington’s artwork has a barely concealed violence about it,” Pictou writes. “The violence of Colonialism against Native cultures, the violence of Westward expansion, the violence within economic stratification, the violence forcing Natives onto reservations, and the violence of man against Nature itself.”
Homer gets off easy in “Mythmakers,” his myths having to do more with man’s exploitation of nature than with the dominant culture. His sporting pictures and muscular landscapes seem tame compared to Remington’s Wild West. But missing from the exhibition are Homer’s images of Southern and Caribbean Black people.
Homer created sympathetic depictions of African-Americans that caused a New York Times art critic in 1880 to write, “Mr. Homer is one of the few artists who have the boldness and originality to make something out of the negro (sic) for artistic purposes.”
When I emailed Diana Greenwold, PMA curator of American art, about the lack of paintings of African-Americans by Homer, she replied “while I requested the loan of key works of Homer’s that depict African-American sitters from several institutions, those museums were loathe to loan them.”
You have to wonder whether this reluctance was for fear they might be attacked, literally and figuratively, in the present heated climate of Black Lives Matter.
“Mythmakers” is an exhibition that can be seen and appreciated from several points of view.
On one hand, Homer and Remington created enormously entertaining images that seem harmless enough if you are sleepwalking through life. On the other, some of these images will be troubling to anyone awake to social injustice and cultural stereotypes.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.