Epic Homer Winslow Homer: On display at the National Gallery of Art, his work is accessible to the general public and satisfying to sophisticates.

October 22, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Winslow Homer stands at the summit of American art, as the National Gallery's grand new show of his work once again proves. In his own time a century ago, he was recognized as one of the greatest American artists -- and so he is recognized today.

His work has many faces: Civil War battlefront scenes, postwar genre paintings, watercolors from the tropics, environmental protest images, grandly heroic and tragic sea paintings. Among all these, there are greater and lesser individual works, but he was always an artist of uncommon depth.

He appeals both to the casual viewer and to the most scholarly one, for he is willing to take you as deeply into his pictures as you are willing to go, and provide rewards at every level. As one of his contemporary critics so aptly put it, "There is here 'something more than meets the eye,' but the eye is none the less satisfied."

Homer did not have to create esoteric-looking works to be profound. And though in his private life he spurned socializing and did his finest work while living aloof and alone, he reflected his country's democratic ideal by turning repeatedly to the common man and woman as the embodiment of spiritual nobility.

In its 220 works, the exhibit covers every aspect of the artist's career. Together with its admirable catalog, it shows that while his finest works date from the second half of his career, from the beginning he was no ordinary artist.

"Home, Sweet Home" (about 1863), based on his Civil War

experiences, is one of his earliest paintings. In it, he eschews the obvious scene implied by the title and takes an original approach. Instead of a homecoming, Homer shows two soldiers at the front, listening to an unseen band play the familiar song; he lets the viewer imagine what's going through their minds. Thus he pulls us in with a scene that's open to our thoughts, not closed: Rather than showing us a particular home in a particular time and place, he allows us to supply our own.

By the time of this painting, Homer was in his late 20s. Born in Boston in 1836, he was apprenticed to a lithographer and subsequently became an illustrator, covering the war for Harper's magazine. After the war, he turned to genre scenes that are far more resonant than those of most of his contemporaries. By the weight and dignity of his figures, even of children at play ("Snap the Whip," 1872), he avoided genre's pitfalls of cliche and sentimentality. And he reveals a modern sensibility in his attention to the concerns of women ("The Noon Recess," 1873) and African Americans ("The Cotton Pickers," 1876).

But all of this is only prologue. In the early 1880s his work underwent sweeping, fundamental changes. While he was on an extended trip to the remote English fishing village of Cullercoats in 1881-1882, his figures, especially of the village women, take on a classical grandeur. And the sea acquires a new degree of significance.

In 1883, soon after returning to America, he moved permanently from New York to Prout's Neck on the Maine seacoast, where for most of the year he could work with a minimum of distractions.

Out of this splendid isolation came a quarter century of profound utterances on the human condition. The first of them, "The Life Line" (1884) is one of the most complex and rewarding, for it explored concerns Homer pursued for the rest of his life.

The painting depicts a woman being rescued in a violent storm. She lies apparently unconscious in the arms of her rescuer, and rides in a breeches buoy, a life buoy attached by pulley to an overhead line stretching from ship to shore.

This wasn't Homer's first depiction of a storm at sea, but the sea takes on a new violence and immediacy here. The single uprushing wave of foam behind the figures is an image Homer would bring closer to the picture plane, for more dramatic effect, in such later pictures as "Northeaster" (1895), "Maine Coast" (1896) and "On a Lee Shore" (1900).

Nor had Homer before this put the viewer in such close proximity to the danger of the sea. We are in (or, like the figures in the ## picture, just above) the water, and so figuratively our peril is as great as theirs. Homer was also to use this device repeatedly, in "The Fog Warning" (1885), "Lost on the Grand Banks" (1885) and, most tellingly, in "The Gulf Stream" (1899). In it, the figure lying on the boat is threatened by the circling sharks, but we are in the water with them.

In "The Life Line," the sea comes to the fore as the metaphor for the violence that can overtakelife unexpectedly, for the possibility of sudden death and for death itself. We do not see where the painting's life line ends, as we do not see where our own will.

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