Things are about to get wild at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
“Wild Spaces, Open Seasons: Hunting and Fishing in American Art,” an extensive exhibition devoted to those time-honored pursuits, opens Oct. 7 and runs through Jan. 7. Collected by the Amon Carter, the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tenn., the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha and the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, the exhibition features more than 60 works by a who’s who of American art, including Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, George Bellows, Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell.
While no animals were harmed in the creation of this exhibition, it does feature quite a few dead, or soon-to-be dead, birds and mammals of various sorts. The living in most of the paintings are the hunters and their faithful canines, or men with fishing rods in their hands. And the backdrops are often stunning representations of an untamed, thinly populated America, teeming with an abundance of flora and fauna. In short, a huntsman’s and angler’s paradise.
But if you think of this exhibition as just a collection of images of smoking guns, deceased prey and dogs with ducks in their mouths set against natural splendor, you are missing the larger point.
“The goal of the show is to show that hunting and fishing go way beyond the idea of simply sporting subjects,” says Shirley Reece-Hughes, curator of paintings and sculpture at the Amon Carter. “It is all about all sorts of issues happening in the United States, including the emerging concept of community and national identity, as well as wildlife conservation, the environment and societal and cultural changes. Beyond being just typical or straightforward representations of hunting and fishing, you realize the depth of the meanings behind these works.”
There are even political and economic undercurrents in some works from the exhibition, which comprises paintings, watercolors and sculptures from the 19th century through the mid-20th century.
“Hunting and fishing could be a democratic pursuit. You didn’t have to own the land. It was available to everyone,” says Maggie Adler, associate curator at the Amon Carter.
The exhibition also has a natural historical arc that takes it from the hunting methods of Native Americans, who hunted for survival, to the evolution of hunting and fishing as a pastime of well-heeled Americas, who had the luxury of considering hunting and fishing to be sports.
“We trace (hunting and fishing) as it goes back and forth from something that is wild and outside the mainstream, to something that is representative of the American spirit,” says Adler.
The exhibition also serves to show points of intersection between two types of art works: traditional landscape paintings and genre paintings (works depicting activities of everyday life).
“Aware of the growing interest in outdoor sports, artists used the adventurous pursuit of game or the fine art of angling as stories in works that bridged genre and landscape painting traditions,” says Reece-Hughes, in the chapter she contributed to the handsome catalog for the exhibition.
An example of this union of two types of painting is one of the works in the exhibition taken from the Amon Carter’s permanent collection, “The Hunter’s Return” by Thomas Cole. It is an opulent piece of Hudson River School landscape art that also includes the “story” of a frontiersman returning from a hunt. In front of his rustic cabin, his wife holds a baby aloft. Was it born while the hunter stalked his prey? These and other questions make the painting something other than just another landscape.
The painting also contains two elements found commonly in “Wild Spaces”: the linking of hunting and family, and the bond of the huntsmen (the deer taken in the hunt is carried by the returning husband and a fellow hunter).
Citing Cole and William Sidney Mount as examples of the artists who built that bridge between genre and landscape painting, Reece-Hughes notes that “their paintings reflected their own outdoor experiences with family members or friends, and their works are often imbued with the theme of fellowship in the field.”
“Wild Spaces” is presented at the Amon Carter in six themed sections:
These works are described in a museum press release as “representations of hunting and fishing as recreational pastimes, often the province of society’s upper echelons, and the role of artmaking in navigating the social codes of leisure.” The paintings in this section include a stunning Western landscape by Thomas Hill, “Fishing on the Merced River,” which recalls Thomas Moran’s paintings of the unspoiled American West, and “A Young Salmon Fisher,” a portrait of a ready-for-anything angler by John Singer Sargent.
Hunting and fishing are examined as means of making a living or staying alive in this section, which contains 13 works. They include such diverse images as “An Indian Trapper,” by Frederic Remington (another Amon Carter-owned work) and “A Huntsman and Dogs” by Winslow Homer. But I would especially recommend two works by Gifford Reynolds Beal from the 1920s, “The Fisherman” and “Fishermen with Nets.” Though less well-known than many of the other artists in this exhibition, the colors, textures and lines of many his paintings (including this pair) are exceptionally compelling.
Communing with Nature
This is certainly the most serene of all the six themed areas. The dozen works here include a gorgeous sunset painting (“The Trappers, Lake Tahoe,” by the great nature artist Albert Beirstadt) and a quiet New England fishing scene on extremely still water (“Eel Spearing in Setauket” by William Sidney Mount). But don’t overlook “The Trapper” by Rockwell Kent, which sets its subject in a frozen Alaskan landscape that looks a bit like the surface of the moon. It is a striking painting, as are so many works by that New England painter.
This part of the collection reminds patrons that, in the wild, the game often fights back. The 14 pictures in this area (the most of any section) show hunters dealing with extreme conditions and snarling beasts to bring home the bacon — or maybe the venison. Many are wrought with drama, but none more so than “A Tight Fix — Bear Hunting, Early Winter” by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait. The large painting (about 4 by 6 feet) depicts a wounded hunter, separated from his gun, staring in terror at a huge black bear who is about to finish what he has already started. In the background, though, another hunter raises his rifle. But wait a minute. What is he aiming at? It is one of the most arresting and perplexing paintings you are likely to see in this, or any other, exhibition.
Myth and Metaphors
This section differs from the rest in that it is not so literal. Instead of actions of the hunt or the catch, these works deal more with symbols associated with those pursuits. Its nine works include a sculpture of the Roman goddess of the hunt, “Diana of the Tower,” by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and “A Celtic Huntress” by George de Forest Brush.
The title says it all for this section. The 13 works here do not move much. But there are some fine paintings, including the unexpectedly modern and abstract “Indians Hunting, #4,” a 1935 work by George L.K. Morris that vibrates with colors and draws the viewer to its intriguing shapes and angles. That is contrasted by the somber “The Wild Swan” by Alexander Pope. The bird in this painting is not as wild as it once was.
On the whole, the exhibition is a dazzling survey of some of America’s greatest artists, which has been assembled and presented in a highly thoughtful and revelatory manner.
“When you organize an exhibition like this, it is very rare to bring masterworks such as these together in one showing. It just fleshes out a story in American art that is not seen when you see these works separately,” says Reece-Hughes.
So whether you are an avid sportsman, or someone who hunts for meat exclusively in supermarkets, you are likely to be enthralled by many of these outstanding works.