While many artists have painted nocturnes within Western art history, two major names are often considered the masters of the scenes: Frederic Remington and Frank Tenney Johnson. Melissa J. Webster, in her book Frank Tenney Johnson and the American West, points out that the two artists had different levels of experience with the subject: “Johnson earned much of his reputation as a fine artist from his nocturnes. Unlike Remington, who painted his finest nocturnes in the last four years of his life,
Johnson earnestly painted moonlight, dusk and twilight scenes for at least 35 years,” she writes. “As early as 1904 he was noting the effect moonlight has on colors. From Colorado he wrote his wife, ‘[O]n one evening in the cool mountain air as we rode I watched the daylight fade and the moon come up to glow brighter until we cast strong shadows, and I had another fine opportunity to study the different colors change under the moonlight.’”
Johnson was well aware of the emerging tonalist movement, which was casting haze and mist onto paintings that would render scenes dark and flat. Webster continues: “He talks of a veil, as did some of the tonalists, but his veil is one of beauty and is not meant to obscure, as was the tonalist’s goal. In 1931 he said of his night scenes, ‘I like to think of moonlight as nature’s indirect lighting. In the far West, where the air is clear, you can see all the essential structure of the rocks by moonlight, and a good deal of color detail in the foreground.’ …Johnson’s moonlight creates an atmosphere of quiet and elusiveness while it continues to expose color, not completely neutralize it. As an admirer wrote to him, ‘[Your] moonlights seem to me to possess the impalpable elusive mystery that moonlight has.’ Like Remington before him, Johnson was not a tonalist but profited from their experiments in low-keyed colors.”
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