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. and 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.”

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