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The Great Prose Painter

Winslow Homer October 15, 1995-January , 1996 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, February 21-May 26 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 20-September 2.

an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.,, Catalog of the exhibition by Nikolai Cikovsky Jr., by Franklin Kelly
National Gallery of Art/Yale University Press, 420 pp., $60.00; $29.95 (paper)


The Winslow Homer show recently on view at the National Gallery, and soon to open in Boston and New York, consists of more than 240 objects: oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, and engravings, all the way down to paintboxes and brushes and well-thumbed manuals of color theory. To look at the whole of it is a distinctly nineteenth-century kind of experience, analogous to reading in consecutive order the complete works of Thomas Hardy, or surveying on foot the headwaters of the Missouri, or taking inventory of Theodore Roosevelt’s house at Sagamore Hill. There is little in the way of sudden leaps or eccentric digressions: no fever dreams or mad gambles. Progress is made in steady increments, and one must pay attention at each slight bend in the road.

This may not be the ideal way to look at Winslow Homer’s, or anyone’s, art—scores of paintings are inevitably crowded into invisibility by their neighbors—but it does instill a healthy respect for the sheer stamina of the artist. The impression is of a gathering precision and force attained through methodical experiment and stubborn persistence. Winslow Homer, our invisible host or (more appropriately) trail guide, begins to figure in imagination as a particular prototype of nineteenth-century man: reserved to the point of taciturnity, ruggedly self-sufficient, an artist with a good commercial head and a sportsman’s feeling for the outdoors, outwardly untainted by scandal or controversy, inwardly unknowable and not wishing to be known.

That wish not to be known has bothered art historians inordinately. It’s as if Homer had reneged on an implicit contract to articulate his inner motives for the benefit of future chroniclers. He certainly didn’t make their work easier for them; as the curators of the exhibit, Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., and Franklin Kelly, put it in their admirably thorough catalog, he was “reticent almost to the point of secretiveness about the meanings of his creations, and protective of his privacy almost to the point of reclusiveness.”

The man who said that “the most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public” left little in the way of personal details for biographers to go to work on, no marriage or known love affairs, no record of intimate friendships, nothing even resembling a strong emotional episode. Not so much, in fact, as a spate of purple prose. Homer went about his work in plain view but in silence, consistently refusing to make statements of general intention or ultimate significance. His letters reveal chiefly that he thought his work was very good and sometimes outstanding, and that it was intended to speak for itself. An attempt to elicit further information about the narrative implications of The Gulf Stream provoked a characteristic burst of sarcasm: “I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description…. You can tell these ladies that the unfortunate negro who now is so dazed and parboiled—will be rescued & returned to his friends and home & ever after live happily.”

One senses more than a little of the control freak about Homer, a control freak now to some extent outfoxed by a posterity determined to have its way with him. He exercised many forms of control: over his medium (attained, despite scanty training, through rigorous self-discipline), over his social contacts (he cut them back drastically), over the sale and exhibition of his works (he took pains to limit the number of items on the market, and on occasion insisted that viewers stand at a prescribed distance from certain of his paintings).

Homer could hardly have anticipated the mania of twentieth-century scholars for aesthetic accountability, for nailing down every stray detail and motive, and their tendency to mutter balefully about repression and sublimation when they find that data has been deliberately withheld by the subject. Yet his probable reaction to such scrutiny is clear from his irascible responses to every attempt to pin him down or draw him out. Asked to provide material for a biography, he replies: “It may seem ungrateful to you…that I should not agree with you in regard to that proposed sketch of my life—But I think it would probably kill me.” Pressed to provide titles for some of his Adirondack watercolors, he writes to his dealer: “The two fishermen are fishing for trout—call them Thom—Dick—or Harry—The two log pictures are on the Hudson river anywhere you choose to place them—The trout is a trout—.”

It is not reticence or evasion that comes to mind, however, while we hike among the marks left by this life. The world is very much with us here, from the trees thick with sharpshooters to the beaches and mountains dotted with post-bellum picnickers, from the sheepfolds of Houghton Farm to the trout streams, tropical harbors, and wave-dashed cliffs of the later work. Seen in this comprehensive fashion the work begins to resemble a pictorial tour—the coast of Maine, the North Sea, the woods of Virginia, the lakes of the Adirondacks—each locale to be studied for its particularities of coloring and vegetation, and for the characteristic occupations of its inhabitants. Homer’s work will not suffer itself to be looked at entirely in abstract terms of color and mass and pattern. To think about it at all is to think about temperature and wind velocity and shifts of light, and about the practical adjustments that humans make to unavoidable conditions.

He paints, so to speak, in prose, by which I don’t mean to suggest anything cluttered or plodding. It isn’t the ancestral prose of Washington Irving or James Fenimore Cooper that comes to mind, but the modern idiom of Homer’s contemporaries, William Dean Howells or the young Henry James, the literary cosmopolites who learned to leave out superfluous details and rhetorical persiflage in favor of exact observation, an unwillingness to force the issue, an appreciation of details for their own sake. Homer appears to hew without exaggeration to the contours of what is observable.

This is of course an illusion; Homer’s effect of impromptu reportage owes much to sleight of hand. Most of the time he is not showing what happens to be there but rather what he has placed there. Nothing could be more calculated than the way figures and props are dropped into (or removed from) their surroundings. The catalog emphasizes Homer’s collage-like approach to picture-making, particularly during his years as a professional illustrator, an approach comparable to industrial methods relying on interchangeable parts. He often re-used the same figures in different contexts; the same milkmaid with the same bucket and milking stool shows up in at least four different works. He would cut up drawings and paintings in order to generate different compositions, or adapt works from one medium to another and in the process add or subtract crucial pictorial and narrative elements.

In his later years a similar approach sometimes led him to paint over portions of earlier paintings so as to drastically change their meaning. The woman with child walking along a stretch of sea-swept Maine coast in The Gale of 1893 began life ten years earlier (The Coming Away of the Gale) on a waterfront path in the English village of Cullercoats, passing in front of a group of men geared to embark on a sea rescue. The distressed ship under full sail which a lifeboat crew prepared to assist in The Signal of Distress of 1890 had become, two years after the painting’s first exhibition, a mastless wreck with no sign of life.

Homer’s flair for recycling and repositioning has everything to do with techniques developed over a lengthy and successful career as a commercial illustrator adept at picturing whatever Harper’s Weekly or Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper might require of him, from society balls and skating parties to the interiors of flophouses and opium dens. For nearly twenty years his sketches and paintings were reproduced as engravings illustrating everything from sheet music to popular novels, and filling the pages of popular magazines with requisite scenes of dancing, bathing, hiking, and other forms of contemporary leisure.

His illustrations exhibit little of the melodramatic facility typical of the day; the most gaudily picturesque subjects become strangely dour in his hands. Even in his commercial work there is a gravity which resists easy reading, easy tears or laughter. Yet the painter whom Henry James perceived (in an 1875 review) as upholding “purely pictorial values” (“the artist turns his back squarely and frankly upon literature”) was also, in his earliest training and experience, very much a journalist. It was as a war reporter of sorts, in his sketches and paintings of Civil War camp life, that he first made a major public impression (so much so that it was decades before he could surpass the impact of his first great success, Prisoners from the Front of 1866). He remained enough of a journalist to take as the subject of one of his last and greatest paintings—Searchlight on Harbor Entrance, Santiago de Cuba (1901)—the newly revealed properties of electric light.

His strength as a reporter is the detachment already evident in his earliest known painting, The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty (1863). Here, as so often afterward, he delineates an action with clarity but in something of a void, the void of a snapshot cut off from any wider context. The sharpshooter is perched in a tree, peering through the telescopic sights of his rifle and poised to shoot, but we cannot see his face or altogether grasp the situation in which he is caught up. The crucial action, the death of which he may be the cause, occurs off-screen, as it were, in the line connecting his averted gaze and the invisible target toward which his face is turned. At the same time, the viewer’s vantage point suggests that the sharpshooter might just as easily figure as a target in someone else’s sights.

Homer depicts a portion of a trajectory, and the result would be intolerably could if it were not for the warmth of curiosity with which every detail is presented. The painting’s unheroic mood is confirmed by a letter in which Homer noted that the long-distance killing practiced by sharpshooters “struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service.”

When Homer sets up an apparently conventional scene he manages to curtail the anticipated emotional reading. He is the great American painter of ambiguous situations for the nineteenth century as Hopper will be for the twentieth. In the period from the end of the Civil War to the late 1870s, he explored a varied range of American subjects in a way that repeatedly evokes (whether intentionally or not) the writers of the period: Mark Twain’s boys at play, William Dean Howells’s modern young women, George Washington Cable’s scenes of life among Southern blacks, Sarah Orne Jewett’s fishing villages of the Maine coast.

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