If you’re a hunter, you probably don’t need to be reminded that deer season starts here in Texas on Nov. 4. You may even have all your equipment ready to go. While the worlds of hunting and art don’t overlap that often, now is a good time for anyone interested in either to take the short drive up to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Ft. Worth to see an exhibit called “Wild Spaces, Open Seasons: Hunting and Fishing in American Art.” It’s one of those exhibits that after you’re about two-thirds of the way through, you begin to realize what a good idea it is.
It consists of about 60 paintings, sculptures and prints depicting hunting and fishing in America from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th. It traffics in the extremes of action and quiet, from the dusty chaos of an Indian buffalo hunt to the pregnant stillness of a pond at daybreak, and effectively testifies to the centrality of such activity to the formation of American culture, archetypes and even perhaps some of its clichés.
The roster of painters here is impressive. One encounters standout pieces from Thomas Cole, Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, Frederick Remington and others. Something particularly enjoyable is to see painters mostly associated with the East Coast, the Ashcan School, or even European high society offer their take on the more rustic life. Thomas Eakins, George Bellows, even John Singer Sargent, two of whose three works here portray women fishing, are represented well.
But a lot of these artists are less well known, contributing the distinct joy of discovery to the exhibit. One prominently featured is Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, an Englishman who immigrated to the United States in 1850. His name may not be familiar to most Americans (I’d never heard of him) but his work is. He was one of the prolific artists affiliated with printmakers Currier and Ives and some of his hunting scenes were among their best sellers.
Devotees of Texas art will enjoy seeing an 1889 still life by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, whose son Julian became famous for painting bluebonnets. My favorite piece was a snow scene entitled “The Trapper” by New York artist Rockwell Kent, painted in 1921. It’s a slightly Modernist piece showing influences of Georgia O’Keefe and Marsden Hartley (who has one painting in the show). While there’s not much Modernism on display, a highlight of the exhibit is a wonderful 1919 Cubist fisherman by Polish-born American Max Weber.
Bracy Hill teaches history at Baylor, including courses on hunting in American culture. He says the exhibit shows “how the outdoor activities of the expanding Republic, especially hunting, were projected to the American population and to the world, thereby formulating a unique myth and identity for the nation” that remains viable.
The sheer geographic variety of the paintings allow the viewer to sense the march of the American frontier westward while the hunter, trapper and fisherman remain as ubiquitous as the cabin carved into the wilderness. Hill notes that “even the grand landscapes which seemingly overwhelm the viewer with space and the magnificence of nature encourage the viewer to find the human (and frequently canine) presence angling or hunting, seemingly in defiance of the power of nature.”
Thematic exhibits like this can be hit or miss but this one is consistently good. Like most of the exhibits at Amon Carter, it’s of perfect size: not so lengthy that your attention lags, not so brief you’re left wondering about its validity. “Wild Spaces, Open Seasons” is up through Jan. 7, 2018.