The National Catholic Review
Leo J. ODonovan

Some artists whom you think you know well, like some old friends, can surprise you entirely. Perhaps experience has prepared you to share their vision. Or the times have taken a turn that gives the art new urgency. New scholarship uncovers influences and contexts. Radiography and restoration can tell closer stories on the work’s development. Sensitive critics clear away the overgrowth of bias, prejudice and stereotype. And fashions change, as today when beauty can again be discussed.

 

Winslow Homer is such an artist. When the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., 10 years ago organized the grand exhibition of Winslow Homer’s work that made its triumphant way over the next year first to Boston and then to New York, enthralled visitors rediscovered an artist who had been widely popular but just as widely seen too simply. His typically American subject matter, his obvious affection for children and everyday life, his peerless way with New England seascapes all endeared him to a large public.

But the 1995 exhibition revealed a far more reflective, self-conscious and independent intelligence, one that responded indeed with great sympathy but also with critical distance to the world around him. He was, we saw, indeed a painter of America, but also far more than “an American painter.” In his care for the grandeur of the ordinary and his cultivation of a “plain style,” he was our Walt Whitman at the easel. While his great fellow realist Thomas Eakins was looking within to find a world in which one might live, he looked out to the world to discover his soul and assuage its scald.

Now the National Gallery has mounted a smaller, more intimate show of 50 paintings, drawings, prints and watercolors from its own collection. The result, if more modest, is again both delightful and, at a troubled time for our nation, healing.

The iconic picture centering the first gallery, one of Homer’s most deservedly famous and beloved, is “Breezing Up (A Fair Wind),” a sailing scene in the harbor of Gloucester, Mass., with three boys and an older man in a boat that parts the spraying sunlit sea as a strong wind tosses cumulus clouds in the sky above. Infrared reflectographic examination has shown that Homer carefully edited his original conception to something simpler and stronger. He removed two sailboats from the horizon, emphasizing the harbor less and the speed of his boat more. A boy formerly sitting in the bow has been replaced by an anchor, a symbol of hope, and the tiller once held by the fisherman has been put in the hands of his barefoot son. Exhibited first in 1876, the year of America’s centennial, the painting was an instant success. One writer aptly saw in the skipper’s boy “gazing brightly off to the illimitable horizon [a symbol] of our country’s quiet valor, hearty cheer, and sublime ignorance of bad luck.”

Homer’s first success, however, came not from work at sea but at the battlefront. Born in Boston in 1836, the second of three sons of Henriette Benson, an amateur watercolorist, and Charles Savage Homer, a hardware importer, Winslow apprenticed with a commercial lithographer for two years, became a freelance illustrator in 1857 and in 1859 moved to New York. In 1861 Harper’s Weekly sent him as an artist-correspondent to cover General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in Virginia, and the Civil War, the crucible of our national identity as a united people, became also the central school of his art.

His woodcut prints and his first oil, “The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty” (1863), revealed the mechanized savagery of modern warfare. Critics in New York praised the “hearty, homely actuality” of pictures like “Home, Sweet Home” (1863), showing soldiers at a campfire, and “Prisoners from the Front” (1866), the greatest success of Homer’s early career, in which Confederate prisoners are brought before a Union general. (He sent both paintings to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867.) Among the work from the war, as in the gallery’s “Study for ‘Army Boots,’” we also see the emergence of the artist’s lifelong sympathy and respect for African Americans.

During the 1870’s Homer took childhood as a major theme. The gallery has a wood engraving of his famous painting of school boys playing “Snap the Whip” and a lovely typical watercolor and gouache of “Four Boys on a Beach.” Barefoot boys and well-shod girls appear in delightful scenes of the idyllic rural life he experienced in the late 1870’s at Houghton Farm, the home of a patron in Mountainville, N.Y. (In each there is a story—but the artist lets the viewer tell it.)

Best of all is the relatively small but emotionally monumental “Dad’s Coming!” (1873), a haunting, poignant scene of a small boy perched on the bow of a beached boat and straining to find his father’s ship on the horizon. His mother, holding his tow-headed little sister in her arms, turns three-quarters away from the sea and toward the land. A sublime, anguished stillness inhabits this ode to watching and waiting. With typically compact eloquence, it captures all the tested dignity of families who live by and from the sea. (The title comes from a wood engraving of the painting published in Harper’s Weekly with an accompanying, sentimental poem; hanging nearby, the engraving, with its now cloud-filled sky and striped dress on the little girl, reveals Homer’s sensitivity to the differences between his media.)

The other great theme of the decade is women portrayed alone at work: calling the family to dinner, carrying milk, gathering eggs, caring for a sick chicken, preparing lessons in “The Red School House” (all from the gallery’s collection). Having begun to work in watercolors at Gloucester in 1873, the artist quickly became proficient in the medium. Several years later a suite of watercolors romantically portrays a certain red-haired young woman with whom Homer may well have had a failed love affair. The gallery owns the most elegant of these, a carefully posed lyric of affection for a beautiful young teacher in a gray dress with a pale blue-and-white checked smock. She stands in profile and holds a pointer to the blackboard, on which, according to current educational practice, she has traced geometric forms with which to teach her students how to draw. In the restraint of its palette and its formal dignity, the intricate detail of the girl’s dress and the exquisite rendering of her face, this small watercolor has all the presence of a major oil painting. Adam Gopnik has written in The New Yorker that it “out-Whistlers Whistler, who never painted a portrait as witty or as surely shaped.”

For whatever reasons—and they are much debated—Homer left the United States in 1881 to live for a year and a half in the North Sea English fishing village of Cullercoats. There he worked largely in watercolor, though his oils include an atmospheric village scene, given to the National Gallery by the American curator John Wilmerding. Some disparage the results. But it was a turning point for the artist, the discovery of a newly classical dignity in his figures and composition and a still deeper realization of the unending struggle between humanity and the sea. (One is reminded of Picasso’s neoclassical figures from the early 1920’s.) Women and children predominate—their men are off in their boats—and even an apparently picturesque sketch such as “On the Sands” (1881) suggests the stress and precariousness of the hard life so charmingly presented. (Here, too, one sees the slashing diagonal line from an upper to a lower corner of the sheet that will reappear so often in the artist’s later marines.) The mood of these images had been intimated by “Dad’s Coming!” Now the gravity and moral seriousness of ordinary life becomes central to the artist’s imagination.

After returning to America, Homer soon moved permanently to live on family property at Prout’s Neck, near Portland, Me. The next years produced tightly edited, concentrated dramas with heroic import: a seaman saving a passenger from a shipwreck (“The Lifeline,” 1884); lone New England fishermen in their dories on the Grand Banks (“The Herring Net,” “The Fog Warning,” “Lost on the Grand Banks,” all 1885); two sailors on a ship taking a reading from the sun to fix the position of their vessel (“Eight Bells,” 1886); two athletic men rescuing women bathers in a heavy surf (“Undertow,” 1886). For the first two of these the gallery has later etchings that are admirable in themselves but even more interesting in comparison with the oils they recall.

Once settled in Maine, Homer regularly traveled to the tropics in wintertime, and many of his best watercolors—the special strength of the exhibition—come from these trips. In the Bahamas he takes you to the very doorstep of “Native Huts” (1885). Visiting Bermuda in 1899 and 1901 he painted at least 19 sparkling, fluid watercolors that he considered “as good work...as I ever did.” Florida drew him to visit four times during the last decade of his life, and his admiration for towering palm trees fairly strums on sheets like “Red Shirt, Homosasa, Florida” (1904).

By contrast, when he visited the Adirondacks—first in 1870 and then regularly after 1889—his palette is generally more autumnal, though no less vivid or fresh. Here fishermen and hunters bring to a grand, unsullied nature the whiplash and crackling fire of sudden death for the hunted. The apparently peaceful scene of a young man and two dogs amid fall foliage (“On the Trail,” 1889) is actually the beginning of a harsh story of “hounding,” a method of hunting deer by having dogs drive them into lakes where they could be clubbed or shot from boats. The sorry practice is famously memorialized in the gallery’s two versions of “Hound and Hunter,” a watercolor sketch from 1892 and a large oil later that year. As so often in Homer, a simple, closely observed scene gradually reveals itself as a cautionary tale of cruel possibility with all but Darwinian implications.

From about 1890 onwards, Homer’s art became darker and more introspective. Many of his greatest paintings, such as “High Cliff, Coast of Maine” (1894) in the National Museum of American Art or “Northeaster” (1895) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are threnodies on the tumultuous encounter of shore and sea, with all human figures eliminated. The National Gallery does not have any of these late great marines, which at the end of its earlier exhibition created a kind of climactic symphony of the sea, especially in the final gallery of that show’s run in Boston. But it does have an 1883 watercolor, “Incoming Tide, Scarboro, Maine,” which superbly anticipates the later masterpieces. And it also has the very last of Homer’s oil paintings, “Right and Left” (1909), painted a year and a half before his death, which now hangs provocatively opposite “Hound and Hunter” in the show’s third and final gallery.

A sporting picture first of all, and immediately popular in that respect, it shows two wild ducks being shot at sea by a hunter whose boat is barely discernible in the middle distance. Seen from the ducks’ high vantage point, with the duck on the left just shot and the one on the right killed a moment before, the painting inevitably evokes reflection on mortality as the law of life. It is a distressing, puzzling and utterly unforgettable picture. Typically also, its title came not from the painter but from a sportsman who admired the hunter who could bring down his quarry so quickly with the right and left barrels of his shotgun.

Winslow Homer was of course a realist painter, if by realism—in contrast to classicism, romanticism, expressionism or abstraction—one means representing the world as it is. But he held the mirror of his soul at an ironic distance from the sea and suffering around him. As a result his imagery is as telling today as it was in a more innocent, if no less violent, American time. Along with Eakins, he has emerged as greater and more essential than we ever suspected. Indeed, as Earl A. Powell III, the director of the National Gallery, wrote 10 years ago, “it is not possible to see too much of Winslow Homer, or to see too much in him.”

“Winslow Homer in the National Gallery of Art” remains on view until Feb. 20, 2006. It will not travel.

By Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., is president emeritus of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.