Contrabandista a la Frontera is unusual among Frank Tenney Johnson’s oeuvre, or collection of works, in portraying gunfire but representative in showing one of his favorite color schemes. This work suggests why Johnson’s reputation as a pure painter – an artist rather than an illustrator – secured his election as an associate in the National Academy of Design in 1929 and as a full member eight years later, a distinction bestowed upon only three other artists represented in our collection: Gilbert Gaul, William R. Leigh, and Peter Hurd.
Like Remington, Frank Tenney Johnson took an interest in representing night light, also referred to as nocturnes. As mentioned previously on the blog, a group of turn-of-the-century artists called tonalists followed a style of painting that was limited in color scale and explored the delicate effects of light to create suggestive moods. Johnson would have seen some of Remington’s best nocturnes during the artist’s one-man shows at M. Knoedler & Co. between 1906-1909. While Remington produced most of his night paintings during the latter years of his life, Johnson crafted compositions of moonlight, dusk, and twilight scenes for much of his career and earned his reputation as a fine artist from his nocturnes. In fact, it was one of his night scenes that warranted the artist his first award, the Salmagundi Club’s Shaw Prize, in 1923.
Tonalists intended the low-keyed colors of night to obscure, throwing a veil over the scene. However, for Johnson, the veil was one of beauty. He viewed moonlight as nature’s indirect lighting. In his composition, Contrabandista a la Frontera, the moonbeam spotlights the group of men, casting a greenish light on the scene. Despite the limited range in tone, one can still distinguish a variety of details and hues, as the moonlight exposes a multitude of colors. The painting glows.