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HOMER

(Winslow Homer, 1836-1910)

"Some major artists create popular stereotypes that last for decades; others never reach into popular culture at all. Winslow Homer was a painter of the first kind. Even today, 150 years after his birth, one sees his echoes on half the magazine racks of America. Just as John James Audubon becomes, by dilution, the common duck stamp, so one detects the vestiges of Homer's watercolors in every outdoor-magazine cover that has a dead whitetail draped over a log or a largemouth bass, like an enraged Edward G. Robinson with fins, jumping from dark swamp water. Homer was not, of course, the first "sporting artist" in America, but he was the undisputed master of the genre, and he brought to it both intense observation and a sense of identification with the landscape-just at the cultural moment when the religious Wilderness of the nineteenth century, the church of nature, was shifting into the secular Outdoors, the theater of manly enjoyment. If you want to see Thoreau's America turning into Teddy Roosevelt's, Homer the watercolorist is the man to consult.

"The Homer sesquicentennial (he was born in 1836 and died in 1910) is being celebrated with "Winslow Homer Watercolors," organized by Helen Cooper at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Her catalogue is a landmark in Homer studies. It puts Homer in his true relationship to illustration, to other American art and to the European and English examples he followed, from Ruskin to Millet; its vivacity of argument matches that of the paintings. Cooper has brought together some two hundred watercolors-almost a third of Homer's known output. It is a wholly delectable show, and it makes clear why watercolor, in its special freshness and immediacy, gave Homer access to moments of vision he did not have in the weightier, slower diction of oils.

"You will see, in the future I will live by my watercolors," Homer once remarked, and he was almost right. He came to the medium late: he was thirty-seven and a mature artist. A distinct air of the Salon, of the desire for a "major" utterance that leads to an overworked surface, clings to some of the early watercolors-in particular, the paintings of fisher folk he did during a twenty-month stay in the northern English coastal village of Cullercoats in 1881-82. Those robust girls, simple, natural, windbeaten and enduring, planted in big boots with arms akimbo against the planes of sea, rock and sky, are also images of a kind of moralizing earnestness that was common in French Salon art a century ago. Idealizations of the peasant, reflecting an anxiety that folk culture was being annihilated by the gravitational field of the city, were the stock of dozens of painters like Jules Breton, Jules Bastien-Lepage and jean-François Millet. Homer's own America had its anxieties too-immense ones. Nothing in its cultural history is more striking than the virtual absence of any mention of the central American trauma of the nineteenth century, the Civil War, from painting. Its fratricidal miseries were left to writers (Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane) to explore, and to photographers. But painting served as a way of oblivion-of reconstructing an idealized innocence. Thus, as Cooper points out, Homer's 1870s watercolors of farm children and bucolic courtships try to memorialize the halcyon days of the 185os; the children gazing raptly at the blue horizon in Three Boys on the Shore, their backs forming a shallow arch, are in a sense this lost America. None of this prevented Homer's contemporaries from seeing such works as unvarnished and in some ways disagreeable truth. "Barbarously simple," thought Henry James. "He has chosen the least pictorial features of the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization as if they were every inch as good as Capri or Tangier; and, to reward his audacity, he has incontcstably succeeded."

"Once into his forties, Homer rarely went anywhere without rag paper, sable brushes and little pans of color. He took his working vacations in places he knew would give him subjects-the New England coast, the Adirondacks, the tumultuous rivers of Quebec, the Florida Keys and the dark palmetto-fringed pools of Homosassa, the bays and whitewashed coral walls of the Bermudas.

"Although Homer exhibitions up to now have tended to treat his watercolors as ancillary to his oils, mere preparations, it is clear at the National Gallery that Homer did not think the same way and that he did more than any other nineteenth-century American artist to establish watercolor as an important medium in this country. In structure and intensity, his best watercolors yield nothing to his larger paintings. Homer had great powers of visual analysis; he could hardly look at a scene without breaking it down and resolving it as structure, and some of his paintings of the Adirondack woods, with their complicated shuttle of vertical trunks against a fluid background of deep autumnal shade, are demonstration pieces of sinewy design. He was able to isolate a motif in action, as though the watercolor were a pseudo-photograph. This sometimes looks false, but it was exactly the kind of falsity that appealed to popular taste, and Homer's watercolors of leaping trout and thrashing bass, the Big Fish dominating the foreground, are a curious conjunction of the merely illustrative and the frenetically decorative. In his sober moods he was rarely off-key. His Adirondack paintings have the astringent completeness of the Michigan woods in early Hemingway. Perhaps no painting has ever conveyed a hunter's anxiety better thanHound and Hunter, with its flustered boy in the dinghy trying to get a rope on a shot stag's antlers before its corpse sinks, lurching to and fro in a cave of forest darkness and disturbed silver ripples.

"Watercolor is tricky stuff, an amateur's but really a virtuoso's medium. It is the most light-filled of all ways of painting, but its luminosity depends on the white of the paper shining through thin washes of pigment. One has to work from light to dark, not (as with oils) from dark to light. It is hospitable to accident (Homer's seas, skies and Adirondack hills are full of chance blots and free mergings of color) but disaster-prone as well. One slip, and the veil of atmosphere turns into a mud puddle, a garish swamp. The stuff favors broad effects; nothing proclaims the amateur more clearly than niggling and overcorrection. It can be violated (Homer sometimes did his highlights by tearing strips of paper away to show white below), but it also demands an exacting precision of the hand-and an eye that can translate solid into fluid in a wink. Homer understood and exploited all these needs of watercolor better than his contemporaries, and he applied them where they most belonged--to the recording of immediate experience. A painting like Key West, Hauling Anchor, 1903, has a sparkling directness hardly attainable in oil. It is so simple-looking - blue sea, white boat, a patch or two of red shirt, the red picked up again at the boat's waterline and in a jaunty lick or two of carmine reflection - that at first one does not mark the skill that went into it, the power of epigrammatic observation implicit in Homer's ability to convey the milky blue water over a Florida sand bottom in two washes of cerulean and cobalt. One knows how little time it took to see and how little to do; but one senses the years of self-critical practice behind it. No wonder Homer is the despair of every amateur.

 

- From "Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists", by Robert Hughes

 HOMER_WOODCUTTER

Homer, Winslow The Woodcutter 1891 Watercolor over graphite 13 3/4 x 19 7/8 in. (34.9 x 50.5 cm) Private collection

 HOMER_TURTLE_POUND

Homer, Winslow The Turtle Pound 1898 Watercolor over graphite 14 15/16 x 21 3/8 in. (38 x 54.3 cm) Brooklyn Museum, New York

 HOMER_SPONGE_FISHERMEN

Homer, Winslow Sponge Fishing, Nassau 1885 Watercolor and graphite 10 1/2 x 19 1/2 in. (26.7 x 49.5 cm) Private collection

 HOMER_RAPIDS

Homer, Winslow Canoe in the Rapids 1897 Watercolor over graphite 13 5/8 x 20 1/2 in. (34.6 x 52.1 cm) Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

 HOMER_NASSAU

Homer, Winslow A Wall, Nassau 1898 Watercolor 14 3/4 x 21 1/4 in. (37.5 x 54 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 HOMER_HURRICANE

Homer, Winslow Hurricane, Bahamas 1898-99 Watercolor 14 1/2 x 21 in. (36.8 x 53.3 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art

 HOMER_homer_west_point

Homer, Winslow West Point, Prout's Neck, Maine 1900 Oil on canvas 30 1/4 x 48 1/4 in (76.8 x 122.6 cm) Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

 HOMER_homer_tempest

Homer, Winslow Watching the Tempest 1881 Watercolor over graphite 13 7/8 x 18 3/4 in (35.3 x 47.6 cm) Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts

 HOMER_homer_summer_night

Homer, Winslow Summer Night 1890 Oil on canvas 29 1/2 x 39 3/4 in Musee d'Orsay, Paris

 HOMER_homer_street_corner

Homer, Winslow Street Corner, Santiago de Cuba 1885 Watercolor 14 x 20 in (35.6 x 50.8 cm) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 HOMER_homer_right_left

Homer, Winslow Right and Left 1909 Oil on canvas 28 1/4 x 48 3/8 in National Gallery of Art, Washington

 HOMER_homer_prisoners

Homer, Winslow Prisoners from the Front 1866 Oil on canvas 24 x 38 in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 HOMER_homer_nets

Homer, Winslow Mending the Nets 1882 Watercolor and gouache over graphite 27 3/8 x 19 1/4 in National Gallery of Art, Washington

 HOMER_homer_mink_pond

Homer, Winslow Mink Pond 1891 Watercolor over graphite 13 7/8 x 20 in (35.2 x 50.8 cm) Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts

 HOMER_homer_life_line

Homer, Winslow The Life Line 1884 Oil on canvas 29 x 45 in Philadelphia Museum of Art

 HOMER_homer_lee_shore

Homer, Winslow On a Lee Shore 1900 Oil on canvas 39 x 39 in Rhode Island School of Design, Providence

 HOMER_homer_inviting

Homer, Winslow Inviting a Shot before Petersburg, Virginia 1864 Oil on panel 12 x 18 in The Detroit Institute of Arts

 HOMER_homer_home

Homer, Winslow Home, Sweet Home 1863 Oil on canvas 21 1/2 x 16 1/2 in Private collection

 HOMER_homer_guide

Homer, Winslow The Adirondack Guide 1894 Watercolor over graphite on cream wove paper 15 1/8 x 21 1/2 in (38.4 x 54.6 cm) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 HOMER_homer_carnival

Homer, Winslow Dressing for the Carnival 1877 Oil on canvas 20 x 30 in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 HOMER_homer_cape_trinity

Homer, Winslow Cape Trinity, Saguenay River 1904-09 Oil on canvas 28 3/4 x 48 3/4 in Regis Corporation, Minneapolis

 HOMER_GULF_STREAM

Homer, Winslow The Gulf Stream 1899 Oil on canvas 28 1/8 x 49 1/8 in. (71.5 x 124.8 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 HOMER_FOX_HUNT

Homer, Winslow The Fox Hunt 1893 Oil on canvas 38 x 68 1/2 in. (96.6 x 174.2 cm) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

 HOMER_FISHERWOMAN

Homer, Winslow Fisherwoman Probably 1882 Watercolor 14 1/2 x 21 in. (36.8 x 53.3 cm) Mr. and Mrs. Brayton Wilbur

 HOMER_END_OF_THE_HUNT

Homer, Winslow The End of the Hunt 1892 Watercolor and graphite 15 1/8 x 21 3/8 in. (38.4 x 54.3 cm) Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine

 HOMER_CATBOAT

Homer, Winslow Sailing the Catboat Probably 1875 Watercolor and gouache over graphite 7 1/2 x 13 3/4 in. (19.1 x 34.9 cm) Private collection

 HOMER_ADIRONDACKS

Homer, Winslow Hunter in the Adirondacks 1892 Watercolor over graphite 13 7/8 x 22 7/16 in. (35.2 x 57 cm) Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University