A characteristic Winslow Homer painting of the 1890s -- for instance, "High Cliff, Coast of Maine" or "Weatherbeaten" (both 1894) -- will have some dark rocks at the bottom, perhaps rising in a diagonal across the canvas, breakers with white foam in the middle and a green-gray sea blending into a dull gray sky at the top. Nothing more.
So why is it so moving? Because it is not about the rocks and the water, it is not about composition and color, it is not about realism and abstraction. It is about the splendid isolation of the human soul.
Not all of Homer's work is so profound. He is generally regarded as an artist who kept on getting better until, in the last two decades of his life between 1890 and 1910, he produced some of the supreme masterpieces of American art.
At the moment we have the rare opportunity to see many of them in two exhibits showing simultaneously in Washington: "Winslow Homer in the 1890s: Prout's Neck Observed" at the National Museum of American Art (through May 27) and "Reckoning with Winslow Homer: His Late Paintings and Their Influence" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (through May 12).
"Homer" at the NMAA is all Homer, a modest-sized show of 28 works, both oils from the 1890s and a selection of watercolors and drawings that led up to them.
"Reckoning" at the Corcoran contains 58 works, of which only 14 are by Homer. The rest are by younger painters who began working before Homer died and were to some degree influenced by him. They include some well-known names of the first half of the 20th century: Robert Henri, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, John Marin and Marsden Hartley among others.
Early Homer might not have. Born in Boston in 1836, he began his career as an illustrator and became highly successful at it during and after the Civil War; he gradually gave increasing time to more creative work, developing his vision both in watercolor and in oil. By the late 1870s, as Philip C. Beam writes in the "Homer" catalog, he experienced something of a painter's block, but resolved it in the 1880s by a course of action characteristic of his independent nature.
Sailing to Europe, he spent the better part of two years not in the art world capital of Paris or even in London but in a remote fishing village in the north of England called Cullercoats.
There, among the hard-working families of the fishing fleet, his work took on a new depth. On his return to America, he gave up his studio in New York and moved permanently to Prout's Neck on the coast of Maine. His relatives summered there, but he lived there year-round (with the exception of frequent trips) until his death in 1910.
A largely self-taught and deliberate artist, Homer worked on this subject in drawings and watercolors for years before completing the oils that are recognized as his masterpieces: works such as "The West Wind" (1891), "High Cliff, Coast of Maine," "Saco Bay" (1896), "On a Lee Shore" and "West Point, Prout's Neck" (both 1900).
In these simple and somewhat abstract compositions, with a limited, at times almost monochromatic palette, Homer used the sea and the shore, the pounding of waves on rocks, as a metaphor for the loneliness and the nobility of life in the knowledge of death.
To make such claims for pictures of rocks and water may seem grandiose; but these paintings were immediately and always have been recognized as dealing with the most profound concerns of the human spirit, and it is impossible to see them and disagree.
One of the most interesting aspects of Homer's work is that it became more universally human the less it dealt with people. Perhaps because he began as an illustrator, those works of even his late period in which human figures have a prominent place, such as "Cloud Shadows" (1890), have a somewhat anecdotal quality that robs them of true grandeur. But in a picture such as "The West Wind," in which the small, solitary figure stands in the distance, turned away from the viewer and contemplating the ocean, it becomes symbolic of both the viewer in particular and ** of humankind in general.
Numerous critics and other viewers, especially but not exclusively those close to his own time, have described Homer and his works as distinctly American. The book that accompanies "Reckoning" cites many such opinions: "Profoundly representative of the American spirit" . . . "an American by birth and nature" . . . "distinctively American" . . . "intensely American" . . . "as American in character as Abraham Lincoln."
And why were Homer's works thought to be so quintessentially American? Because they were "Big, virile, real" . . . "sober, earnest . . . direct" . . . "honest, virile and rugged, yet not brutal." Or, as the book's author, Bruce Robertson, writes, "What critics wanted to see in Homer's work was naturalness, honesty and simplicity, and that they found in buckets."
In other words, they found in Homer those qualities that they thought marked the superiority of Americans over effete