THE PAINTINGS OF WINSLOW HOMER have long passed beyond mere fame to become an integral part of American cultural consciousness. The crinoline-clad girls enjoying the Jersey shore, the barefoot schoolchildren playing in Snap the Whip, the stalwart guides surveying the vastness of the Adirondack Mountains, the mighty ocean pounding the Maine coast, and dory fishermen pursuing their perilous trade--these images and many more epitomize a peculiarly American 19th-century world. Through Homer's eyes, it is a world in which people live in close contact with nature and natural forces, a world where landscape and ocean are viewed not as a paradise but as powers and presences that can be enjoyed and whose threats can sometimes be overcome. And, particularly in his later paintings, it is a world imbued with a stark and melancholy atmosphere.
Homer's images, distilled from reality and reconstituted with a lean economy, seem to tell us the truth--devoid of affectation or decoration. The paintings, however, do more than just report visual facts. They make us feel. Talking to a young painter, Homer once said, "When you paint, try to put down exactly what you see. Whatever else you have to offer will come out anyway."
The artist's trust in nature in no way held him back from editing what he saw, or from reconstructing the world in a new image. He left us with a body of work that is powerful, convincing, and not altogether happy. Homer's is an art of reticence and balance in which the artist almost succeeds in convincing us that he has removed himself from the equation so that we might better experience the facts for ourselves. It is a strategy that makes us all the more vulnerable to his somber and affecting vision.
The artist painted his greatest images later in life, after a long and fascinating artistic journey. To understand his achievement, it is necessary to follow the many paths he took over several decades to make it possible. Homer was born in Boston in 1836 and grew up in nearby Cambridge, then a community of small farms and open fields. The artist retained a delight in plein air pursuits throughout his life, along with an affection for rural living and for the people who subsist on land and sea. Homer's father was a colorful but dubious businessman, whose schemes so often ended in financial disaster that he was obliged to live off his children once they were grown. Homer's mother was a gifted amateur painter, and it was at her knees that the young artist learned to draw and paint. He received no formal education in art and was an apprentice as a teenager at a lithography and print shop in Cambridge. It was there, with the lowly task of making cover drawings for printings of sheet music, that Homer made his first strides as a professional artist.
The artist later referred to his apprenticeship as drudgery, but it undoubtedly gave him a professional discipline that was to serve him well. At 21 he began working as a freelance illustrator and made lively and humorous genre scenes of life in and around Boston. Very soon he began to make sales to Harper's Magazine, and at 23 he moved to New York City, where he studied painting in the evenings and supported himself as an illustrator.
Harper's sent the young artist south to cover the Civil War, and it was there that he began to make a reputation for himself. His images concentrated on the daily life of the common soldier, the boredom of the camps, and the trials of being sick or wounded. His drawings were generally done on blocks of wood that were shipped to New York, where a wood engraver would carve them into printable images. Homer's work from this period was praised for its honesty and historical accuracy--qualities evident in The Army of the Potomac--A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, for instance. Here, Homer not only captures the attitude of the soldier but also meticulously describes how he has set his weapon in the tree, as well as every leaf and branch that forms his cover. For all the artist's considerable observational skills, however, many of his compositions from this time seem busy and crowded with incident. They remain interesting more for their historical information than for their aesthetic achievement. Returning to New York, the artist made several pictures based on his Civil War sketches. One of them, Prisoners From the Front, was the first of his paintings to gain the attention of the art public. To the modern eye it does not appear to be a particularly strong composition, but in contrast to other offerings at the time, it possessed a clarity and honesty that convinced even the most discerning critics.
This quality of directness and plain truth-telling, which later came to be seen as distinctly American, had its roots in contemporary English art. This was the age of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood--a group of English artists who had spurned the excesses of academic art in favor of returning to the faithful rendition of nature. Their intellectual mentor was John Ruskin, whose writings on art were widely disseminated in the United States. Ruskin wrote, "Truth may be considered a just criterion in art ... with respect to the representation of facts it is possible for all ... to form a right judgment on the respective powers and attainments of an artist." This is a very appealing aesthetic, in which anyone may be a critic by simply measuring the work of art against "truth." In 1863, The New Path, a magazine devoted to the teachings of Ruskin, featured a highly laudatory review of Homer's paintings: "What he has tried to tell us has been said simply, honestly, and with such homely truth as would have given his pictures a historical value quite apart from their artistic merit."
It is difficult to know exactly which artists had an effect on Homer because the artist himself left little written record of his artistic philosophy. What modest correspondence remains is mostly of a businesslike nature. In the 1860s and 1870s, however, his studio was on West 10th Street in New York City, in a building full of gregarious artists. In such a milieu, Homer would certainly have been affected by the general enthusiasm for Ruskin and his call to realism and reliance on nature. In fact, the idea of nature as a benign and unifying force was in the air at the time not only in the art world but also in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, who both proposed a union of human affairs with natural forces. Moreover, many Pre-Raphaelite artists, particularly Millais and Rossetti, often published illustrations in the magazines and journals of the time--work that certainly influenced the appearance of Homer's art.
For the subjects of his new paintings Homer always left town to seek natural settings. He painted the pleasures of vacation areas, of girls having fun on the beach or riding scenic pathways in the White Mountains. He also painted scenes of farm life and children--subjects that had something in common with the genre painting of the time and harked back to the semirural world of his own upbringing. Homer's pictures from this era often have a somewhat lighthearted feel, but they always manage to avoid being cheaply sentimental. Even his sweetest scenes possess the bite of truth. However, the artist never painted the new life of the cities or the industrialization that was then in full swing. His principal subject remained the human drama in the natural landscape.
During these years Homer took up watercolor, which he quickly mastered. The medium was perfectly suited to his quick, sure draftsmanship and eye for local color. He used it throughout the rest of his life as the primary medium for gathering ideas for oil paintings. His practice became to paint watercolors while he was traveling and then work them up as finished paintings in oil when he returned to his studio. He was justly proud of his watercolors, however, and became an early member of the American Watercolor Society. "I will be known by my watercolors," he once said. The public shared his enthusiasm; he made steady sales of his watercolors for the remainder of his life.
In 1867, two of Homer's canvases were chosen to hang at the Great Exposition in Paris. The artist spent 10 months in the city, which later proved to have a profound effect on his art. A large display of Japanese prints was exhibited in the same building as his own paintings, and the process of simplification that it revealed and the wealth of pictorial invention it provided made a deep impression on the artist. The influence of Japanese art on Homer's painting was immediately apparent upon his return to the United States. The weakness of earlier compositions, evident in such works as Prisoners From the Front, is replaced by a boldness and lucidity in which simple shapes are massed into powerful designs, as in Long Branch, New Jersey and The Dinner Horn. Homer had recognized how to use a much more sophisticated visual vocabulary to organize his material. His pictures remained narratives and still contained much that was reportage, but they carried their messages with far more power and economy. Not only are the compositions from this period more streamlined but color areas are simplified, relying on straightforward oppositions rather than richly built surfaces.
Very little is known of the artist's personal life. Homer never married and there isn't any evidence of romance in his life. A healthy and energetic young man--of wiry and muscular build, decent looks, but short of stature--he certainly found young ladies attractive. He is described, however, as awkward and uneasy in their presence, and whatever attachments he may have developed, none ever came to the altar. What bearing this solitude had on the melancholy quality of many of his paintings or on his feelings about the forces of nature and their relationship to human affairs we will never know. What is certain is that Homer, unencumbered by familial responsibilities and diversions, devoted his energies entirely to his work. However, he was neither an outcast nor an oddball. He was a quiet but likeable man, well respected among his peers, who enjoyed a wide circle of friends.
Although Homer's work of the 1870s gained strength, the artist continued to paint his genre subjects: tourist scenes, schoolchildren, and farm life. It wasn't until 1881, however, that he found the subject matter that would inspire him most. In that year, for reasons unknown, Homer went to England, where he elected to spend the summer at the town of Tynemouth on the coast of the North Sea. It is possible that he was searching for a town filled with the type of female tourists and bathers that made his paintings of the Jersey shore successful back home. But Tynemouth was also a community of fishermen who wrested their livelihood from the dangerous and unpredictable waters of the North Sea. Moreover, the light and weather in that part of the world, so much farther north than Atlantic City, is much gloomier and more dramatic than that of the Jersey coast. It was there that Homer became enthralled by the simple dramas of the people who make their living from the ocean: the fishermen's wives staring out to sea as they wait for their men, the launch of the lifeboat to rescue sailors from a foundering ship, the agonizingly fragile fishing boats being tossed on angry waves. Here at last was a subject matter that matched the artist's deepest feelings. The dynamic and dangerous relationship between human activity and natural forces exposed in this setting would occupy Homer for many years to come. On his return to America he elected to leave New York and relocate to the rural town of Prouts Neck, Maine.
The legend of Winslow Homer is that he left New York civilization to become a recluse on the coast of Maine for the last 25 years of his life. In reality, the property at Prouts Neck--which included a large, rambling hotel building--was purchased by his brother Charles for the whole extended Homer family. It included the entire stretch of shoreline around the headland so that Homer actually owned many of the scenes featured in his masterpieces. The artist also built a studio with an ocean view just yards away from the family house so throughout the summers he could enjoy the company of his father, his brothers and their wives, as well as the year-round guests of the many local people whose friendship he valued. Homer continued to travel frequently, spending parts of the winter in the Caribbean, where he painted many fine watercolors of the local young men fishing and sailing. Other travels included repeated visits to the Canadian wilderness and the Adirondack Mountains. But the artist always lived alone, and when he was working, which was the large part of most of his days, he could be extremely short-tempered when interrupted.
Although he didn't cut himself off from the world entirely, he did remove himself from the New York art world and counted few artists among his friends. This likely insulated him from the increasing influence of French painting on American art. While the youngsters of the day developed American Impressionism, with its pretty surfaces and shimmering light, Homer continued to work at his powerfully designed paintings with a fully contrasted tonal range.
The sea outside his window now inspired the artist to create what came to be known as his greatest paintings. The Maine coast is extremely rocky and prone to monstrous gales that--at their most powerful--can whip up the waves to 40 or 50 feet. Screaming winds can rip across the breakers, creating long horizontal trails of spray. Homer rendered this sea, not as academic painter might, but with all the understanding of a painter who knows to simplify and synthesize. In paintings such as Eastern Point and Cannon Rock [not shown] the construction of the water has obviously been reorganized into clear graphic shapes and strong directional lines that echo the Japanese printmaking that had such a lasting effect on his work. The rocks in the paintings are massed into powerful, almost flat, designs and the brushing has become energetic, as though feeding from the physical strength of the ocean. These paintings take on an abstract grandeur that has justly made them famous. They remain, however, haunting evocations of the eternal power of the ocean.
In other marine pictures, Homer continued to tackle the human dramas set at sea. Sometimes these retain the Victorian theme of painting as storytelling, as in The Gulf Stream, in which a delirious sailor lies on the deck of his shattered sailboat circled by sharks, oblivious to both a distant rescue ship and a threatening waterspout. This penchant for portraying stressful moments is also evident in The Fog Warning, Halibut Fishing in which a fisherman must row back to his distant schooner before an encroaching fogbank arrives. Even more theatrical is The Life Line, in which a half-drowned young woman is being taken off a wreck by a breeches buoy amid a wildly threatening sea. These paintings were concocted in the studio, but Homer was nonetheless anxious to have them grounded in truth. For The Fog Warning, Halibut Fishing, he had a rowboat set on the beach against a bank of sand and hired a local fisherman to sit in it, holding the oars, so Homer could render it accurately. Homer then waited months for the right sky to appear so he could complete the picture. For The Life Line, he observed rescues and rescue drills along the coast and researched breeches-buoy equipment in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He used a doll as a model for the girl and set the scene on a group of familiar rocks nearby. So great was the artist's interest in authenticity that he often asked local people for their opinions of his paintings rather than for the opinions of artists or critics. For instance, while painting Fox Hunt in 1902, Homer obtained two dead crows for reference and hung them outside his studio window, where he hoped that frigid temperatures would keep the carcasses in place. Unfortunately, the weather warmed and the crows flopped. When he showed his efforts to a local man the fellow simply exclaimed, "Hell, Win, them ain't crows!" Without further hesitation, the artist painted the birds out and began his picture anew.
During the 1880s and 1890s, Homer also painted masterpieces away from the ocean. The tourist and genre pictures were replaced by much more masculine pursuits. The most famous example is The Two Guides [not shown], which depicts two individuals standing on a slope in the Adirondack Mountains and surveying the terrain. The picture resonates with the strength and confidence of the men depicted in the vast landscape. Homer is careful, however, to frame the figures entirely within the silhouette of the mountain, as if to indicate that their powers are ever bounded by the forces of nature. Many of the watercolors from these years, executed on camping and fishing trips in the Adirondacks and in Canada, depict the prowess of huntsmen and fishermen and reflect the confidence of the artist in middle age.
For all the dark strength of much of his late work, Homer could sometimes conjure a surprising lyricism. In Summer Night of 1890, for instance, he depicts a group of people enjoying a moonlit beach. The radiance of the moon spreads benignly over the turbulent ocean, and two girls, illuminated by a lamp from a porch, dance happily together. The bulk of the paintings from this period, however, project a gloomier spirit. An example is Sunset, Saco Bay, [not shown] in which two fishermen's wives walk away from an enormous and limpid sea as a schooner sails away. In The Wreck of 1896, he creates a scene of almost medieval foreboding in which a hooded figure beckons us to join a force of men as they strain to launch a lifeboat. On the horizon, a group of figures bears away a corpse and is followed by a grieving wife and child.
Homer slowed down in what would turn out to be his last decade. Recognition in the form of medals and purchases had at last put him beyond financial cares and made him famous. Even so, he produced a number of notable paintings, such as the stark drama of Wrecked Schooner [not shown], the watery poetry of Kissing the Moon [not shown], and the splendid Driftwood. This last was his final picture, in which a single figure attempts to salvage a log of driftwood from an angry sea. It is tempting to read this 1909 image as a metaphor for Homer's life: one man's lonely but dogged effort to wrest something of value from forces far greater than himself. Nobody can doubt his success.
John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by Allan Stone Gallery in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and a frequent contributor to American Artist, Drawing, Watercolor, and Workshop magazines.
Parks, John A. "Winslow Homer: his melancholy truth: a great painter's devotion to realism inspires a personal and often haunting vision of the world." American Artist July-Aug. 2006: 44+. General OneFile. Web. 13 Dec. 2009.
Gale Document Number:A146433256
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