America's Homer

A new exhibit celebrates the painter who captured his nation's expansive, self-reliant character.

Art Review

July 02, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Winslow Homer was that peculiarly American, authentic type of genius -- self-taught, eccentric, reclusive, proudly nonconformist and fiercely independent. If he hadn't become the most important American painter of the 19th century, he might well have made his mark as an inventor or a best-selling novelist like Edison or Twain, whose expansive visions of the country matched his own.

Along with Thomas Eakins, the other towering figure of 19th-century American art, Homer painted in a closely observed, realist style in service of uniquely American subjects; his homespun scenes of Civil War soldiers in camp, children at play, farmers and fishermen could never be mistaken for those of any European artist. He painted plain people in a plain style that was nevertheless highly expressive of the affection he felt for his countrymen.

Homer's productive career was longer than that of Eakins, and his artistic development continued right up until his death in 1910. Today, he is best known for the dramatic New England seascapes and brilliant watercolors he painted during the final third of his life. But he also had done important work before he packed up his New York studio in the 1880s and moved to the tiny fishing village of Prout's Neck on Maine's rocky coast, where he would remain for the rest of his life.

The National Gallery of Art's exhibition of Homer's paintings, drawings, prints and watercolors that opens tomorrow doesn't really add much new to what is known of Homer's life and work; it's more like a refresher course a decade after the museum's major retrospective of his work in 1995. But it covers all the important phases of Homer's long career -- and in concentrated form, which makes its contours all the more clear.

Homer was born in Boston, the second son of a father who had prospered in the import business and a mother who was a gifted amateur watercolorist. No doubt Homer's love of the sea in general and of art in particular stemmed in part from these early parental influences.

His older brother attended Harvard College and Homer was expected to follow in his footsteps. But by the time his turn came, the family's fortunes had faltered. So his father apprenticed him to a Boston lithography firm, where Homer spent two years drawing mostly humorous sheet music covers and other comic caricatures.

Other than a few drawing lessons after he moved to New York in 1857, this seems to have been the extent of Homer's formal art education. Everything else -- painting, print-making, watercolor -- he taught himself. He set up a studio on Washington Square and sold his work to major publications like Harper's Weekly.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Harper's commissioned him to illustrate army life at the front. The drawings Homer sent back were turned into wood-block prints that the paper published alongside its articles. Periodically, Homer returned to New York to create oil paintings from his sketches in the field.

One of his first pictures was a sketch of a Union sniper perched in the branches of a tree waiting to pick off opponents with a telescopic sight. Homer was appalled by the impersonality and anonymity of death in this new kind of war, which he called "the closest thing to murder" he had seen.

His most important war picture was Prisoners From the Front, which showed three captured Confederate soldiers, a defiant cavalryman, a dejected old man and a callow youth. The painting is remarkable not only for its utter lack of malice toward enemy prisoners but also for the empathy with which they are portrayed.

After the war, Homer turned to happier subjects, mostly genre paintings of genteel domestic life. In the 1870s, he adopted the motif of children playing as a metaphor for a more innocent America before the war.

In Gloucester, a fishing village on the Massachusetts coast north of Boston, he painted one of his best-known works, Breezing Up, which depicts a carefree group of youngsters aboard their sailboat.

He also painted many pictures of women, whom he portrayed as embodiments of grace and refinement (though, oddly, he had no close relationships with women and never married; to anyone who inquired about his feelings toward the opposite sex he invariably replied: "Mind your own business!").

A turning point in his career occurred between 1881 and 1882, during a yearlong stay in the English fishing village of Cullercoats on the northwest coast of England, where he produced dozens of watercolors and drawings of the stoic women left behind on shore when their men went to sea. He gave these figures a monumentality and dignity that expressed a classical sense of calm and grace, but also a bittersweet melancholy that was like a premonition of the ocean's implacable ferocity.

During his stay in Cullercoats he seems to have fastened on the motif of the sea as a symbol of man's eternal struggle against the impersonal and hostile forces of nature. Shortly after his return from England, he left New York for good to settle in Maine.

During this final period, Homer created some of his most characteristic works: dramatic scenes of ocean waves crashing against the rocky shoreline and shimmering watercolors of tropical climes in Florida, Bermuda and the Caribbean isles, where he began spending the winter months from the 1890s on.

The National Gallery show of about 50 works, though relatively modest in scale, offers a sumptuous sampling of the artist's unfolding talent. This is a lovely show, so easy on the eye that anyone can enjoy it both for the beauty of Homer's art and for its hopeful vision of a resilient, self-reliant American character that the artist convinces us is still worth striving for.

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