No one associates Winslow Homer with abstraction, but Sleigh Ride (1893) indicates that he at times ventured into the non-figurative borders of landscape painting Edgar Degas was exploring in France at the same time.
Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History. At the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA, through September 8.
By David D’Arcy.
American favorite Winslow Homer (1836–1910) has been looked at from just about every imaginable side in the past few years. It has been an examination of Homeric proportions, you might say, a going over that has explored his seacoast, his Civil War, his paintings, his etchings, his illustrations for the popular press, even his house in Prout’s Neck, which is now a pilgrimage destination visitable by appointment.
Now there’s a novel look at Homer, Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History, an exhibition where curator Marc Simpson focuses on Homer works that were acquired by Sterling Clark, the institute’s benefactor.
Clark is best-known for the European paintings that he bought; he had a special fondness for Renoir. But Homer was another favorite for the rich American whose family’s money was made in sewing machines. The exhibition catalog is organized as an anthology of views on Homer and of the patrician Clark’s appreciation of the Homer works that he purchased.
Homer learned mostly on the job, beginning with an apprenticeship at an illustrator’s studio in Boston. His work, images of people and places that were meant to be read instantly as readers glanced at the page, would soon appear in Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion. By the time Ballou’s published his first original design for the publication, Homer’s feel for the vitality of street life, expressed through cinematic crowd scenes, was evident. That was in 1857, when he was 21.
Harper’s Weekly, where he went next, sent the young Homer to the Civil War. Like many war artists, Homer copied Matthew Brady’s photographs, honing a straightforward technique that the Clark exhibition showcases. He witnessed horrors and depicted bayonet charges and the work of surgeons behind the lines. But his most memorable images are those of soldiers alone or in small groups. He caught the paradoxical moments of intimacy of a war in which during battles thousands of men lined up in open fields and shot at each other. Yet these interludes of relaxation were also a fact of life in war, its more gentle reality.
Look at the ensemble scenes in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (if you could stay awake), and then go to Homer’s illustrations for Harper’s Weekly or Ballou’s. Like the history painter that he would become—his is an intimate view of the past where nature tends to elbow its way in among the characters—Homer knew how to dramatize a scene, how your eye could be drawn from the grand event toward details that made the scene more than an illustration of a headline. He made his pictures into complex acts of witnessing an event.
In Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History, Homer’s journalism is amply represented on a wide wall, like a story board for a film. Sterling Clark acquired much of Homer’s journalism in 1941—quite a coincidence. Given what was unfolding on the European continent then, the chaos of the Civil War might have seemed downright nostalgic by comparison.
Homer never experienced another war. If there was a threat looming over the landscape, it was the landscape itself. Homer admired Nature in pictures like 1875′s Two Guides—a view of two hikers framed, in harmony with the wilderness, against a grand, Adirondack background. But he also saw the environment as a destructive force, capturing this power in epic images of the ocean (he relocated to the coast), especially in freeze-frame visions of tempestuous seas.
Those sea pictures became Homer’s signature, and they still are, but there’s something to be said for the human element under pressure, which you see in Undertow (1886). On a literal level, this is the image of leisure gone wrong, and redeemed—two female swimmers saved by two rippled men. Yet there’s something iconic here, as the men, painted as sculptural figures carrying the women to safety, look as if they are part of a Greek frieze, complete with late antiquity’s interest in showing figures in clinging garments to best reveal the heroic proportions of their bodies.
Is the scene an example of overstatement, in its grandiloquent depiction of the kind of tabloid human interest event that the French call a fait divers? It’s still a matter of life and death. Hence the dignity that Homer and we ascribe to it. Who knew that Homer could be a closet classicist?
Compare it to what the Impressionists might have done with scenes on the beach—picnickers, or a boat on stormy seas, seen from afar but no narrative propulsion.
Back to this continent and to Homer. It would take a long time for American artists to abandon narrative—and just as long for Americans to abandon nature for abstraction.
No one associates Homer with abstraction, but Sleigh Ride (1893) suggests that at times he ventured into the non-figurative borders of landscape painting Edgar Degas was exploring in France at the same time. A blue-hued road bisects a hill at dusk, its icy scraped surface created out of rough textures that are as much about painting as they are about any natural subject. In the Clark show’s catalog, we learn that the picture is unsigned and undated and that it was never sold. The snowscape would hang in Homer’s studio until his death.
Was it a private indication of what Homer was holding inside, or what the market wasn’t ready to accept?
Besides sampling Homer’s paintings and his “journalism,” visitors to the Clark can view Homer the printmaker, distinguishing between Homer the artist and the artist that Homer might have been in that medium.
Homer’s prints also raise questions as visitors admire the textures of The Life Line (1884), another scene of a woman saved at sea, and Eight Bells, a picture of two navigators at sea against a background of unruly swells. The exhibition catalog, a documentary approach to scholarship, adds some context. In a 2008 essay, David Tatham observes that “at a time when reliable reproductions of his paintings were rare, most viewers were unable to ascertain the differences between Homer’s etchings and their source paintings. His prints seemed little more that skillful monochromatic reproductions of works in color. Now they stand as an idiosyncratic group of prints of notable originality and great pictorial strength.”
Also on record is Lloyd Goodrich, the venerable Homer scholar: “Probably because of the lack of response [by the art market,] [Homer] did no more etchings after 1889. This was a distinct loss to American printmaking. At the time he stopped, he was improving steadily, using etching more and more as an original medium, and not just a process of reproduction. Fine as his prints were, they were products of a stage when he had not attained his full growth; if the Homer of 1898 had made prints, they would have showed greater mastery. As it was, this small group can be numbered among his capital works in any medium.”
Strong praise. You have about three weeks left to make your own judgment.
David D’Arcy, who lives in New York, is a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He reviews films for Screen International. His film blog, Outtakes, is at artinfo.com. He writes about art for many publications, including The Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary, Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.