Winslow Homer at the Clark – The Paintings and the Printmaker that Almost Was
by David D’Arcy
Winslow Homer has gotten a look from every imaginable side in the past two years. Homeric proportions, you might say, citing an earlier chronicler of heroism – his seacoast, his Civil War, his paintings, his etchings, his illustrations for the popular press, even his house in Prout’s Neck, now a pilgrimage destination visitable by appointment. Everyone should go.
A novel look at Homer, Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History, is now at the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts through September 8, where curator Marc Simpson focuses on Homer works that were acquired by Sterling Clark, the institute’s benefactor.
Clark is best-known for the European paintings that he bought, with a special fondness for Renoir. But Winslow Homer was another favorite for the rich American whose family’s money was made in sewing machines. The exhibition catalog is organized as an anthology of views on Homer, and of the patrician Clark’s appreciation of the Homer works that he purchased.
For al the detail about Clark’s buying habits, the show’s value to the non-professional visitor is that it takes you back to Homer for another look — assuming that there are some members of the public that other Homer shows haven’t reached. I’m sure that’s the cash.
Homer (1836-1910) learned mostly on the job, beginning with an apprenticeship at an illustrator’s studio in Boston. His work, images of people and places there — intended to be read instantly as readers glanced at the page – would soon appear in Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion. By the time Ballou’s published his first original design for the publication, Homer’s feel for the vitality of street life in cinematic crowd scenes was evident. That was 1857, when he was 21.
Harper’s Weekly, where he went next, sent the young Homer to the Civil War. Like many war artists, Homer copied Matthew Brady’s photographs, honing a technique that the Clark exhibition showcases. He also witnessed horror, and depicted bayonet charges and the work of surgeons behind the lines, all gruesome enough, but his memorable images were those of soldiers alone or in small groups. This was the paradoxical intimacy of a war where thousands of thousands lined up in open fields and shot at each other. But if that intimacy was a reality of war, it was far more gentle than the reality that most soldiers faced and endured. It is part of our memory of that time nonetheless.
Look at the ensemble scenes in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (if you could stay awake), and then go to Homer’s illustrations for Harper’s Weekly or Ballou’s. Like the history painter that he would become – it was usually an intimate history later, where nature would elbow its way in among the characters – Homer knew how to give a scene drama, how your eye could be drawn from the grand event being depicted for the newspaper audience, toward details that made it more than an illustration, and made it seem that you were witnessing this event with him. His scenes before and during the the war are a detailed tour through the American that Homer saw at that time.
And there’s a lot of it. In Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History, Homer’s journalism is amply represented on a wide wall, like a story board for a film. Sterling Clark acquired much of Homer’s journalism in 1941 – quite a coincidence. Given what was unfolding on the European continent then, the Civil War might have seemed nostalgic by comparison.
Homer never experienced another war. The post Civil War era was Homer’s belle epoque. If there was a great threat out there looming over the landscape, it was the landscape itself. Nature, which Homer admired in pictures like Two Guides (1875), a view of two hikers framed, in harmony with the wilderness, against a grand Adirondack background, was also a powerful destructive force, which Homer captured in epic images of the ocean (he relocated to the coast), especially in freeze-frame visions of tempestuous seas.
Those sea pictures became Homer’s signature, and they still are, but there’s something to be said for the human element which you see in Undertow of 1886. On a literal level, this is the image of leisure gone wrong, and redeemed – two female swimmers saved by two rippled men. Yet there’s something iconic here, as the men, painted as sculptural figures carrying the women to safety, look as if they are part of a Greek frieze, complete with the manner of late antiquity to show figures in clinging garments to best reveal the heroic proportions of their bodies.
Homer’s detractors will no doubt see this scene as an example of overstatement, in its grandiloquent depiction of the kind of tabloid human interest event that the French call a fait divers? It’s still a matter of life and death. Hence the dignity that Homer (and we) ascribe to it. Who knew that Homer could be a closet classicist, painting figures that seem inspired by antiquity? At the same time, it’s scene from modern life — a dark turn on Sunday at the Beach with Winslow.
Compare it to what the Impressionists might have done with scenes on the beach – picnickers, or a boat on stormy seas, seen from afar, but no narrative propulsion.
Back to this continent, and to Homer, who loved to hunt and fish, and loved to paint those activities. It would take a long time for American artists to abandon narrative – and just as long for Americans to abandon nature for abstraction.
No one associates Winslow Homer with abstraction, but Sleigh Ride (1893), a small painting in the show, shows that he ventured to the non-figurative borders of landscape painting that we see Edgar Degas exploring in France at the same time. In the bluish tones of a road bisecting a hill at dusk, the blue road has an icy scraped surface, with rough textures that are as much about painting as they are about any natural subject. In the Clark show’s catalogue, we learn that the picture is unsigned and undated, and that it was never sold. The snowscape would hang in Homer’s studio until his death.
The picture was important enough to Homer for him to want to look at it every day. It reminds you of Degas’s experiments with landscape where most of the picture seems abstract. It also looks ahead toward Edvard Munch’s painterly treatment of the subtle winter palette decades later. If Homer thought highly of his own work in Sleigh Ride, the market probably did not. All the more reason to to sell it, and Homer, based on letters in the Clark show catalog about sale and prices, was a practical man.
Besides sampling Homer’s paintings and his “journalism,” visitors to the Clark can view Homer the printmaker, distinguishing between Homer the artist and the artist that Homer might have been in that medium.
Homer’s prints also raise questions as visitors admire the textures of The Life Line (1884), another scene of a woman saved at sea, and Eight Bells, a scene of two navigators at sea against a background of unruly swells. The exhibition catalog, a documentary approach to scholarship, adds some comtext. David Tatham in a 2008 essay, writes that “at a time when reliable reproductions of his paintings were rare, most viewers were unable to ascertain the differences between Homer’s etchings and their source paintings. His prints seemed little more that skillful monochromatic reproductions of works in color. Now they stand as an idiosyncratic group of prints of notable originality and great pictorial strength.”
Also on record is Lloyd Goodrich, the venerable Homer scholar: “Probably because of the lack of response [by the art market,] [Homer] did no more etchings after 1889. this was a distinct lost to American printmaking. At the time he stopped, he was improving steadily, using etching more and more as an original medium, and not just a process of reproduction. Fine as his prints were, they were products of a stage when he had not attained his full growth; if the Homer of 1898 had made prints, they would have showed greater mastery. As it was, this small group can be numbered among his capital works in any medium.
Strong praise. Goodrich is right. Again we have evidence that Homer’s prints, like his wandering into abstraction, was too far in advance of what the market would absorb.
You have about two weeks left to make your own judgment.