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The Clarity of Things’

In the wake of the great Copley retrospective in Boston in 1966, the critic Barbara Novak ascribed Copley’s sensibility not to any artistic predecessor but to a “conceptual bias” present in Puritanism. Jonathan Edwards wrote of “the clarity of ‘things,’” of things as the mediators between words and ideas, between empirical and conceptual experience. “The manifestations God makes of Himself in His works,” Edwards wrote, “are the principle manifestations of His perfections, and the declaration and teachings of His word are to lead to these.” The first great painter of American landscapes, Thomas Cole, who also perpetrated a number of religious pictures and large allegorical canvases, lamented that the public preferred “things not thoughts.” Moving from America to England, Copley passed from an art whose soul was empirical to one whose soul was conceptual, societal, and theatrical.

Two self-portraits record his inner migration: a pastel at the age of thirty-one shows, but for the touch of vanity in the elegant, leisurely costume, an enigmatically bland young man, his eyes watchfully on you. A tondo in oils after a decade in London paints in dashing brushstrokes a faintly haggard man of fashion in his forties (see illustration on page 12). His eyes, directed away from us, are those described by an observer, not long after he had left America, as “small eyes, which, after fatigue, seemed a day’s march in his head.” Always laborious in his painstaking methods—sitters, including the younger daughters of George III, complained of being “wearied” during the many sittings Copley demanded—he had left behind the land that had rewarded him with unchallenged eminence and what he described as a “pretty living” of three hundred guineas a year, for an England where he always struggled to prove himself. Lloyd Goodrich’s essay puts it bluntly: “America lost her greatest artist, to add another good painter to the British school.”

In the ninety-eight years that went by between Copley’s birth and that of Winslow Homer, on Boston’s Friend Street, into the family of a well-to-do hardware merchant, Boston still had acquired no art school and very little of an artistic community. When young Winslow, whose mother was a dedicated amateur watercolorist, expressed a desire to be an artist, the best his indulgent father could do for him was to acquire, on a business trip to England, some instructive lithographs and to arrange for his son’s apprenticeship to an acquaintance, the commercial lithographer John H. Bufford. Winslow Homer did not speak well of his two years with Bufford; he called working ten hours a day for five dollars a week “bondage” and “slavery” and a “treadmill existence.” On his twenty-first birthday, he left Bufford’s and set up shop in Boston as a freelance illustrator; he caught on very quickly, first with Ballou’s Pictorial and then with Harper’s Weekly, in New York.

In 1859, Homer moved to New York, to be closer to his main source of income; there, in what had become the country’s most vital artistic center, he took lessons in painting and enrolled in life classes. His artistic education, however, was interrupted by the Civil War; in late 1861 Harper’s sent him as a “special artist” to “go,” he wrote his father, “with the skirmishers in the next battle.” Instead of going to Europe, as he and his family had intended, he went to war. One of the many wood engravings based on the “special artist“‘s work that Harper’s published in the next two years is titled The Army of the Potomac—A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty; it appeared in the issue of November 15, 1862, with the attribution “From a Painting by W. Homer, Esq.” This was his very first painting, done in his late twenties (see illustration on this page). His friend Roswell Shurtleff attested that he “sat with him many days while he worked on it,” in Homer’s studio in New York’s University Building. It is, in its careful delineation of pine branches and rumpled trousers, “liney,” though the darkness that swallows the marksman’s head expressionistically conveys the “horror of that branch of the service” which Homer shared with ordinary foot soldiers.

The painting by Homer chosen for the NEH portfolio, The Veteran in a New Field (see illustration on page 14), also concerns that most deadly of American wars, but from the happier perspective of disarmament. Painted in 1865, the canvas was used for a woodcut in an issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of July 1867, illustrating an article celebrating the widespread return of armies from the fields of battle as a triumph of a democratic society. The woodcut is liney, stalk by stalk, but the painting is not; the field being harvested forms a wall of solid golden-brown, and the stalks already cut in the foreground are indicated by a quite loose sprawl of dry brushstrokes. A close friend of Homer’s, the painter Eugene Benson, also the art critic for the New York Evening Post, asserted of this painting that its style was “an effective protest against a belittling and ignoble manner in art”—that is, of the American followers of the English Pre-Raphaelites—and “a sign of that large, simple and expressive style which has made the names of Couture and Millet…so justly honored.”

French art had replaced English as the model; the peasants dignified in the images of Jean-François Millet and the landscapes of the Barbizon School, freed of mythological apparatus, prepared the ground for Impressionism and its vivacious brushwork—“the touch, the sweep, the dash of the brush,” Benson wrote. Without these, “no man can be called a great painter.” In late 1866 Homer and Benson sailed for Europe, and Homer spent nearly all of 1867 in or near Paris; it has been said, in a tone of complaint, that Homer paid insufficient attention to the newest French art, and returned with no sign of French influence; but even a painter as self-willed and individual as Winslow Homer needs courage, and he returned to his studio in the University Building with a braver style.

An oil like Croquet Scene in 1866 has the static lininess and posed “human interest” of his woodcuts. A holiday seaside scene such as Long Branch, New Jersey, of 1869, strikes quite another note—breezier, vaster, with a deep perspective and an overall palette so bright we involuntarily squint. Crossing the Pasture, of 1872, epitomizes the Homeric country idyll —the open meadow splashed with wildflowers, the monumental children caught in a moment of reverie. With little or no recourse to French models Homer has developed an American impressionism—the floating daubs of the flowers, the brilliantly painted tin pail, the dazzlingly white shirt, the dashes of complementary green on the sun-reddened faces.

Another pair, Boys in a Pasture, two years later, gives us a low horizon, a hat of sunstruck straw, a Pythagorean triangle, and beautiful bare feet—we can feel the grass tickle them. The medium of watercolor lightens and loosens his style quite marvelously; in Apple Picking, of 1878, opaque gouache strengthens the sun on the bonnets and skirts while sunlight presses in yellow dabs, the same size as the red apples, through the lacy screen of trees. Red plays about the girls’ shoulders and their all but hidden faces; they are caught in a magic moment instantly freighted with nostalgia. The style, which in some of Homer’s watercolors can be as dry as the pencil underdrawing, is here fluid and wet.

He spent most of his second stay abroad in the North Sea village of Cullercoats, where his paintings of fisherwives, more studied and chromatically subdued than his American watercolors, achieved an uncanny stateliness, as of priestesses from classic Greece. After his return to America in late 1882, up to his death in 1910, his allegiance belonged almost entirely to water—swampy and shadowed in the Adirondacks, sparkling aquamarine in the Caribbean, thunderous, surfy, and titanic off the coast of Maine. His father and brother, early in 1883, had bought up almost all of the peninsula in Maine called Prout’s Neck. Visitors to Winslow Homer’s separate cottage and studio may be struck, as was I, by how closely interwoven it was with the busy resort life his family had created within their compound, and how domesticated the nearby shore was, its walking paths worn through a broad margin of beach roses and grasses.

From this cozy setting Homer wrested images of untamed wildness and power, scenes of water and rock generally unpopulated. High Cliff, Coast of Maine titles a beautifully radical work of 1894 in which the rocks are broken into fragments of color as if by the weariless pummeling of the waves; frustrated by the painting’s failure to find a buyer for nine years, Homer, as if defiantly, signed it twice. But Northeaster, done the next year, is perhaps his signature canvas, unforgettable in the sense it gives us of the ocean’s webbed, heaving weight. The following year’s Maine Coast is similar but freer, almost carefree in the manner of its painting, in brush scribbles and palette-knife slatherings of raw white.

In admiring such pictures, and in gazing at the foaming left half of Homer’s masterly tableau Undertow, painted seven years before Maine Coast, we cannot but be conscious of the paint itself, of thick white dabbled and stabbed, swerved and smeared into place in imitation of the water’s tumultuous action; we simultaneously witness both the ocean in action and the painter at work. These arduous passages of tumbling foam and exploding spray are at once representations of natural phenomena and examples of painterly artifice; thing and idea are merged in the synthesis of artistic representation.

Though Homer observed and imitated the surging waves as intently as Copley did the sheen of fabric and hair, the effect is not “liney.” The opposite of “liney,” it turns out, is “painterly.” It is not an aesthetic misstep to make the viewer aware of the paint and the painter’s hand; such an empathetic awareness lies at the heart of aesthetic appreciation. Beginning as a rather dry, scratchy, anecdotal recorder of military and social life, serving in magazines an illustrative purpose that within a few more decades will be taken over by the novel art of photography and the technology of photoengraving, Homer ended as the wettest of artists, not only our supreme watercolorist but an inventor, on this continent, of Impressionism and action painting in oils.

The liney/painterly dichotomy persists to this day, and in the century since Homer’s last works it has taken many forms. The dry, burnished literalism of Grant Wood and Charles Sheeler followed the ebullient impressionism of Childe Hassam and William Merritt Chase. Thomas Eakins is liney, John Singer Sargent is not; Andrew Wyeth is liney and Edward Hopper not. Among the Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock achieves his signature effects with a welter of lines, and Mark Rothko achieves his by blurring all edges. Among Pop artists, Roy Lichtenstein takes the comic-strip lines and Benday to a majestic scale, while Andy Warhol remains a colorist above all. All, it might be said, employ highly personal techniques to confront the viewer with something vitally actual, beyond illusion.

Two centuries after Jonathan Edwards sought a link with the divine in the beautiful clarity of things, William Carlos Williams wrote, in introducing his long poem Paterson, that “for the poet there are no ideas but in things.” No ideas but in things. The American artist, first born into a continent without museums and art schools, took Nature as his only instructor, and things as his principle study. A bias toward the empirical, toward the evidential object in the numinous fullness of its being, leads to a certain lininess, as the artist intently maps the visible in a New World that feels surrounded by chaos and emptiness.

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