COLLECTION CONNECTIONS: The West as Imagination featuring Reynolda's 1921 Hiawatha pageant & Remington’s "The Rattlesnake"

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COLLECTION CONNECTIONS: The West as Imagination featuring Reynolda's 1921 Hiawatha pageant & Remington’s "The Rattlesnake"

By Kathleen Hutton, Director of Education | @LearnReynolda

Our online gallery, The West in the American Imagination, features works of art about the settlement of the land which Europeans initially regarded as wilderness, although it was home to American Indian tribes. This virtual exhibition is intended as an online resource as well as a complement to the exhibition currently on view through May 3, 2015, George Catlin’s American Buffalo. This is the last of three blog posts about collection objects that are relevant to the art of George Catlin (1796-1872.)

In the current Northeast bedroom gallery exhibition, Lake Katharine: Reynolda at 100, is a case containing an elaborately bound photography album of the May 1921 staging of a play by the children of the Reynolda School based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem, The Song of Hiawatha. The drama was enacted on the far side of Lake Katharine across from Sunset Hill, below Reynolda House, where on the evening of May 25, 1921, an audience of reportedly five thousand gathered to watch the spectacle, complete with outdoor lighting and amplification of the narration.

Although Longfellow was writing about the legendary Onandaga chief and founder of the Five Nations of the Iroquois, this often produced early twentieth-century pageant incorrectly used sets and costumes inspired by American Indians from the Plains, specifically feather war bonnets and tipis.

Today most Iroquois live in New York and Canada (Quebec and Ontario) but before the Europeans colonized North America, their home was in New York, west of the Hudson River and through the Finger Lakes region. They called themselves Haudenosaunee, “the people of the long house.” So Hiawatha and Minnehaha would NOT have lived in tipis. The adaptation of Lake Katherine’s canoes to resemble ones of birch bark was a more authentic touch.

It is not improbable to suggest that the costumes and scenery designed for the Reynolda School pageant owe more to the work of Frederic Remington (1861-1909) than that of George Catlin.

In a personal statement for Collier’s magazine (March 18, 1905) Remington reflected upon his chosen subject matter of the vanishing American frontier: “I had brought more than ordinary schoolboy enthusiasm to Catlin, Irving, Gregg, Lewis and Clark, and others on their shelf and youth found me sweating along their tracks. I was in the grand silent country following my own inclinations, but there was a heavy feel in the atmosphere. I did not immediately see what it portended, but it gradually obtruded itself. The times had changed. (. . .) I saw the living, breathing end of three American centuries of smoke and dust and sweat, and I now see quite another thing where it all took place, but it does not appeal to me.” Catlin strove for authenticity in his quest to document the Plains tribes and the bison herds; Remington embodied in his artistic body of work a powerful myth of American identity which today can be highly problematic in its underlying assumptions but is nevertheless still prevalent. Of his continued influence on the American imagination, art historian Matthew Baigell says: “If Hollywood Westerns and dime novels are indications, few artists have ever had such a strong impact on the ways a country has read and continues to read its past history.”  

Frederic Remington (1861-1909) took up sculpture in 1894, by which time he had established himself as a highly successful career as an illustrator and painter, ultimately creating over 2700 images of the American West. It is somewhat surprising that Remington produced only twenty-two editions of bronze sculptures, eighteen of which were created using the lost wax process and produced at the Roman Bronze Works in New York. Remington would fashion his model using plasticine, which was then cast in plaster, from which a wax model was cast. Remington would then work over the wax form, restoring texture removed in the plaster casting (as in the woolly chaps the rider is wearing in The Rattlesnake) and would add any number of re-touches before determining it ready for the final casting in bronze. Reynolda’s The Rattlesnake is the second, larger version of the design copyrighted in 1905. It is estimated that 70 were cast before Remington’s widow had the original models destroyed in 1918.


Read the entire The West as Imagination blog series.


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