The Call for Help / (At Bay), c. 1908
Frederic Remington, American, 1861–1909
Oil on canvas
27 1/4 × 40 1/8in. (69.2 × 101.9cm)
The Hogg Brothers Collection, gift of Miss Ima Hogg
Habits of Mind
- DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence
Scaffolding and Questioning Strategies:
Learning Through Art: Scaffolding and Questioning Strategies from Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on Vimeo.
For more tips on teaching with works of art, watch the rest of the series.
Prepping for a Field Trip
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
This Curriculum Connection also includes Melissa Miller, Tapestry and Pablo Picasso, Woman with a Large Hat.
- Using art history to prepare for a Museum Field trip
Connecting to the Work of Art
Frederic Remington’s The Call for Help, one of the seventy paintings depicting the American West at night, provides an unusual glimpse of the nocturnal frontier. Painted in the last decade of his life, Remington earned high praise for these works, which encouraged him to experiment with capturing the varied effects of nighttime light. These nocturnes (works inspired by night) are considered his greatest artistic achievements.
At first glance, this painting is difficult to decipher. However, just as our eyes adjust in a dark room, forms and patterns soon emerge from the gloom of the painting. Remington reveals an eerie scene of the Western night—a place of beauty and danger—in the reflected moonlight.
Against a broad expanse of moonlit snow, depicted in thick hatch marks of green and gray paint, two wolves (or coyotes) approach three startled and frightened horses huddled against a fence. Streaks of gray and blue suggest the musculature, sheen, and movement of the three horses. As one cowers, another rears, and a third, partially obscured from view, presses close to the fence. The black horses seem to merge into a single jumbled figure, heightening the tense energy of the scene.
In the background, warm, golden light from a house hints at an offer of warmth and protection. Two large haystacks, placed next to the house, balance the composition. The fence, an abstract pattern of bands of light and dark, marks a division between nature and civilization. The man-made house and neatly manicured haystacks on one side of the fence are a direct contrast to the discord of nature found on the other side and suggests a collision between untamed nature and the order of civilization.
Here, Remington veers off-course from his characteristic subject of the glorified American West, choosing instead to paint the experience of being “out there” alone, miles from anywhere after the sun goes down. He captures a genuine essence and feeling of the West as it would have been known to those who truly experienced the sublime beauty, vastness, danger and stillness of the American frontier.
- This painting can be difficult to decipher at first. What elements contribute to this confusion?
- Despite a tone of confusion and anxiety, how does the artist create visual balance in the composition?
- Why do you think the artist chose to tightly crop the painting and essentially depicted the snow-covered ground for most of the composition? How does this focus the viewer’s attention?
- How does the arrangement of the horses add tension to this scene?
- Note Remington’s color choice. What colors are placed in the background? What colors are in the foreground? What effect do the shades of green create in the painting? What associations do we have with the color green?
- How would this work be different if it were painted as a day scene?
- What elements does the artist include to offer a sense of warmth and protection?
- Notice how the fence divides the scene. Describe what is happening in each side of the fence.
- What elements in this work of art suggest a conflict between untamed nature and the order of civilization?
- How can this scene be described as a place of beauty and threat? What contradictions does the artist include in the work to contribute to this interpretation of the work?
- The word “sublime” is often used to describe paintings of the American West. What other words would you use to describe your interpretation of this work?
- Explain how the fence can be viewed as division between nature and civilization. Use visual evidence from the work of art to give reason for your answer.
- Where is the setting for this work of art? What associations do you have with the American West at the turn of the century?
- Do you agree that this painting captures the experience of being “out there” alone, miles from anywhere after the sun goes down? Why or why not?
- What does The Call for Help tell you about the views of the American West at the turn of the century? How would this story change if this painting included a train and signs of a town? How would the message be different?
- Often paintings of the American West at the time depicted the West in a grand manner. Do you think this idea applies to this painting? Why or why not?
- The artist seems to have captured a genuine essence and feeling of the West as it would have been known to those who truly experienced the sublime beauty, vastness, danger, and stillness of the American frontier. Do you agree with this statement? Justify your answer using your observations from the painting and your knowledge about the American West.
Connecting to the Classroom
- What do you think is happening in this scene?
- Why would the artist use these colors? Are they realistic?
- How would this painting feel different if the colors were bright?
Using art history to prepare for a Museum Field trip, hang printouts of the works of art around your classroom. In front of each artwork, leave a card with questions that will provoke conversations. Divide the students into groups and assigned them to start at one artwork. Students can take turns being a docent (leading a group discussion) and talk for 3-5 minutes. If they ran out of questions, instruct students to try and extend the conversation.
- Talk about the art until I tell you to switch
- Follow all the “visiting an art museum rules”
- A new group member will act as docent at each artwork. There are cards at each artwork with questions for the docents to ask.
- You will be graded on participation in the conversations AND on following the art museum rules.
Sample “visiting an art museum rules:”
- Stay 3 feet from the artwork at all times (out of arm’s reach).
- No pointing, unless your hand is 3 feet or more away from the artwork.
- Stay with your group
- Answer the docent’s questions.
- Ask questions.
- Keep your voices low so that only your group can hear you.
- Be respectful of other people’s opinions.
Subject Matter Connection
Self-confidence and self-discipline are very important qualities to develop before attending a museum field trip. Students must be confident enough to interact with the docents, ask questions, and share what they know to have a richer visit. They also must possess self-discipline since they are in a new setting and will not always have their classroom teachers to lead the discussion. Allowing students to be docents will help them take ownership of the field trip and will ultimately enhance their museum experience.
Resources Available to Order
Check our online collection module for further information.
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider