The Yale Alumnus

In the spring of 1878, Remington wrote to his Uncle Horace Sackrider, “I am going to try and get into Cornell College this coming June and if I succeed will be a Journalist. I mean to study for an artist anyhow, whether I ever make a success of it or not.”

Unfortunately for Remington, Cornell University did not have a journalism department at that time. Fortunately for us, Remington enrolled in the newly created School of Fine Arts at Yale instead. Our blog featured a previous post about Remington’s time at Yale, which was short. His collegiate career last about 1 ½ years, having decided not to return to college after the holiday break that year due to the death of his father.

During his time at Yale’s art school, Remington was one of 7 men, along with 30 other art students, in both the first art school at an American university and the first coeducational school at Yale.

A coeducational painting studio around the turn of the century.

Yale opened its School of the Fine Arts in 1869. From the beginning, the school included women, which was in accordance with the wishes of its founders. The new institution was to be “a school for practical instruction, open to both sexes, to follow art as a profession.” In fact, the first person to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree at Yale (in 1891) was a woman.

Long after Remington had left Yale and was in the height of his artistic career, in 1900, the dean of the art school, John Ferguson Weir, proposed that Remington be awarded a Yale degree, despite the fact that the former student had completed only half of the three-year course of study. The letter from Weir on display in our current exhibit, Another Frontier: Frederic Remington’s East, outlines for Remington what was required of him for the awarding of the degree. Lest you think this was an honorary degree, the faculty minutes indicate that Remington was eligible for an earned one. How is that possible? 

John F. Weir | Letter from John F. Weir, Director, Yale School of Fine Arts, to Frederic Remington | 1900 | Letter | Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, NY

Dean Weir treated the BFA almost like an honorary degree. The degree was intended for “students who have made special attainments and have given evidence of marked ability in their work.” “One could not register for it or get it in course,” stated drawing instructor George H. Langzettel, who had received his own BFA in 1898. Rather, Dean Weir “kept in touch with the record of students after they had become professionals, and then invited them to receive it.”

Today, U.S. News & World Report ranks Yale School of Art as number one in Fine Arts. In addition to Frederic Remington, other notables artists who have graduated from Yale include painters  Chuck Close, Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley; sculptors Eva HesseNancy GravesWangechi MutuMartin Puryear, and Richard Serra.

For the Love of Birch Bark

Remington loved canoeing. Despite his weight gain in his later years, which kept him from his love of horse riding, he quipped that he could always float.

“If properly equipped, a man who sits at a desk the year through can find no happier days than he will in his canoe when the still waters run through the dark forests and the rapid boils below.” – Remington, 1893

Ingleneuk, Photo Album (Frederic Remington with Canoe), Frederic Remington Art Museum

In the summer of 1892, Remington purchased a canoe and embarked on a 50 mile journey paddling the Oswegatchie River, which is a river that flows from the Adirondack Mountains to the St. Lawrence River. (Ogdensburg, Remington’s hometown, developed at the mouth of the river at its confluence with the St. Lawrence.) During this adventure, Remington made sketches for an article he published the August 1893 issue of Harper’s Monthly entitled “Black Water and Shallows,” documenting his voyage:

“We pushed out into the big lake and paddles. As we skirted the shores the wind howled through the giant hemlocks, and the ripples ran away into white-caps on the far shore. As I wielded my double-blade paddle and instinctively enjoyed the wildness of the day, I also indulged in a conscious calculation of how long it would take my shirt to dry on my back. It is such a pity to mix a damp shirt up with the wild storm, as it hurries over the dark woods and the black water, that I felt misgivings; but, to be perfectly accurate, they divided my attention, and after all, man is only noble by fits and starts.”

Ingleneuk, Photo Album (Frederic Remington Canoeing), Frederic Remington Art Museum

One of Remington’s favorite types of canoes was the birch bark canoe. Birch bark canoes are most commonly associated with Native Americans of northern New England regions. Remington painted birch bark canoes in many of his artworks.

Frederic Remington | Hauling the Gill Net | ca. 1905 | Oil on canvas | Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, NY
Frederic Remington | The Howl of the Weather | ca. 1905 | Oil on canvas | Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, NY
Frederic Remington | In a Stiff Current | 1892 | Oil (black & white) on canvas | 24 inches x 36 inches
Frederic Remington | The Courrier du Bois and the Savage | 1891 | Oil (black & white) on canvas | 23 7/8 inches x 35 3/4 inches

Birch bark is the bark of a birch tree and has been used a building and writing material for thousands of years, and today remains a popular type of wood for various arts and crafts – and canoes.

So how do you build a birch bark canoe? With an amazing amount of work. Here’s a very simplified version of the steps:

  1. Gather materials.
  2. Find a building site. – Bark canoes were traditionally built outdoors, with stakes driven into the ground forming the overhead view of the canoe.
  3. Form the gunwales. – Gunwales are the top edges of the sides of a boat.
  4. Cut the bark and place within the boat’s frame.
  5. Shape the stems. – These form the profile of the canoe’s bow and stern.
  6. Sew the bark to the stems with roots.
  7. Build the ribs. – Soak the cedar logs in boiling water for pliability, then wedge the ends of the curved ribs inside the gunwales.
  8. Seal. – Seal any seams in the bark with a heated mixture of spruce gum and animal fat.

Want to see the process in action? I highly recommend watching this 1971 documentary, which follows César Newashish, a 67-year-old Atikamekw of the Manawan Reserve north of Montreal, as he builds a birch bark canoe the traditional way. Although the film is without commentary, viewers will find it mesmerizing and almost meditative to watch.

A Turbulent Painting

*The following is part of a series of blog posts researched and written by Dr. Mark Thistlethwaite, Kay and Velma Kimbell Chair of Art History TCU School of Art, and guest curator of SRM’s special exhibit Another Frontier: Frederic Remington’s East.

On a recent return flight to DFW, the Airbus in which I was a passenger encountered, in the pilot’s words, “moderate turbulence” (most of us onboard would not have used such an understated description). Sitting next to a window over an engine I was able to hear not only its powerful thrusts, but also the sounds of the mighty winds buffeting the plane. While I was listening to roiling weather outside, the title of one of Frederic Remington’s great paintings, The Howl of the Weather, currently on view in Another Frontier: Frederic Remington’s East, came to mind as an apt expression of what I was experiencing. You never know how or when art is going to intersect with life!

Frederic Remington | The Howl of the Weather | ca. 1905 | Oil on canvas | Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, NY

The Howl of the Weather depicts the determination and urgency to find safe harbor. Two men are attempting to balance and control the birch canoe during a squall as strong winds and rough waves threaten to outrace the craft, which could lead to water swamping it. The perilousness of the situation is reinforced by the woman and child huddled together holding on in the center of the canoe. Remington’s inspiration for this painting may have been a story he had published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in August 1896, where he included the phrase “the howl of the weather.” Prior to those words occurring in the text, the narrator had described canoeing on Lake Champlain, where “the wind blew at our backs. The waves rolled in restless surges, piling the little canoes on their crests and swallowing them in the troughs. The canoes trashed the water as they flew along, half in, half out . . .”[1]

The Howl of the Weather’s setting is undetermined. When the artist entered it for copyright on January 18, 1906, it was described as “Birch canoe with two Indian men and a woman in the waves of a lake.” When P. F. Collier and Son entered an additional copyright on February 11, 1907, the description given was of “a canoe going along a river. . . . The water is very rough.” I like to think that Remington purposely kept the location vague, in part to maintain focus on the struggling canoe and the dynamic brushwork that conveys so well the rough water. Also, not delineating the background in detail contributes to the painting’s sense of the sublime.

The sublime was an aesthetic concept proposed in the eighteenth century, most famously in Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1757). This British publication had a major impact on shaping the rise of American landscape painting in the early nineteenth century. It contrasted the clarity and order of the beautiful to the vastness, obscurity, and irregularity associated with the sublime. Further, the sublime revealed a sense of terrifying power (not actual but imagined), which made it more emotionally intense than the beautiful. For viewers of The Howl of the Weather, but not the figures depicted in it, the scene is sublime. By expressing an image of nature that is limitless, shadowy, and filled with awe-full energy and noise, Frederic Remington’s The Howl of the Weather continued the tradition of the sublime into the twentieth century.

1970 Sunoco Brochure

Moving from the sublime to the seemingly ridiculous, I want to share pages from a brochure I came across while engaging in research in the St. Lawrence University Special Collections. As I am always on the lookout for examples of works of art being used in our everyday visual culture, I was struck to come across a reproduction of The Howl of the Weather in a 1970 Sunoco gas company pamphlet (“Sunoco-grams” for Sunoco customers) about preparing your car for winter. When I first saw these pages, I regarded the inclusion of Frederic Remington’s painting as quirky. But now I think that maybe Sunoco’s connection between winterizing your car and The Howl of the Weather is really not so very different from my conjuring up the painting while being bumped around in an airplane. Powerful art can function in many ways.

[1] Frederic Remington, “The Strange Days that Came to Jimmie Friday,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 93 (August 1896): 416