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Winslow Homer | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | Scene4 Magazine - August 2018 | www.scene4.com

Winslow
Homer

The Camera
and the
Canvas

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

In 2013 Bowdoin College Museum received the gift of a camera once owned by Winslow Homer.  The bequest sparked art history professor Dana Byrd and museum co-director Frank Goodyear to launch an exploration of the influence of photography on the work of the great American painter.  The resulting discoveries take brilliant shape in a major exhibition entitled Winslow Homer and the Camera, which runs at the Brunswick museum until October 28, 2018. Featuring some 130 photographs, prints, drawings, and paintings by Homer and several contemporaries, the exhibition examines Homer’s fascination with photography and the ways in which the lens influenced his own art.

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Winslow Homer was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1836 and died in Scarborough, Maine, where he had his seaside studio at Prouts Neck, in 1910.  Largely self-taught with some instruction by his mother Henrietta Benson Homer (who has a few watercolors on display in the exhibit), Homer began his career as an illustrator, famously documenting the Civil War as an artist-journalist, and he went on to become one of the most prominent American painters of the last half of the nineteenth century. Known primarily as a Romantic Realist for his sweeping, atmospheric canvasses that probe the bond between man and nature, Homer was also a fine draughtsman, a keen observer of human life, an expert storyteller, and an artist who was no stranger to genre scenes as well. The Bowdoin exhibit captures all these threads in his work, arranging the pictures chronologically, and juxtaposing them with photographs of the period, either by Homer himself or by noted pioneers of the medium like Matthew Brady.

The exhibition sprawls out over the entire lower floor’s five galleries.  It begins with Homer’s pre-war and Civil War work from 1857-1865. Having served an apprenticeship to a Boston lithographer, Homer spent nearly twenty years working as a sometimes reluctant illustrator for magazines such as Harper’s Weekly.  He moved to New York in 1859 and continued to illustrate while attending classes at the National Academy of Design.  Sent by Harper’s to cover the battlefield, Homer documented the Civil War in memorable images which were his first true genre work and many of which served as the basis for his early paintings. 

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Among the outstanding images in this first gallery are Homer’s large-scale etching of Lincoln’s Inauguration with its fine draughtsmanship and sense of line and his expressive 1860 portrait of Lincoln done in anticipation of the inauguration for the cover of Harpers Weekly.  The portrait captures a dignified Lincoln with gentle eyes and an expression of serenity not always seen in his likenesses.

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Also in this gallery are some sketches and subsequent paintings which mark some of Homer’s most memorable early work.  There is the oil Sharpshooter, which depicts a Union soldier with featureless face in a tree, the diagonal of his rifle aimed an unseen target.  Homer’s first exhibited painting, it makes use of strong compositional strategies such as directed gaze, tight cropping, and nuanced details. There is an aura of tension and imminent and unexpected death that creates a frisson.  Another arresting image is of Trooper Meditating at a Grave, which depicts a Union soldier staring contemplatively into the opened earth where a comrade surely lies.

There are also a number of small miniatures of soldiers engaged in various daily activities of camp life.  Homer eshewed grandiose scenes of war and chose, instead, to examine the conflict from the perspective of the participants, one of the strengths and distinguishing factor of all these works is the artist’s ability to put himself in the shoes of his protagonists. 

The second gallery is devoted to the post Civil War years of 1866-1880. It is in this period that Homer began to turn his attention to genre scenes of children, women, leisure activities, and a fading rural and seaside lifestyle. His oils began to attract some attention at this time, and he was accepted to the National Academy in 1865.  Homer also traveled abroad to Paris for the first time  in this period, and the influence of European artists such as Millet and Courbet can be seen in his compositions and palette.

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Among the striking pictures in this section are Women on the Beach, White Mountain Wagon, and The Unruly Calf.  The last of these shows an African-American boy struggling by himself to drag an unwilling calf from its mother.  The nostalgia for a simpler era, which permeates many of Homer’s works of this period takes a more realistic twist in the dark greens and shadows of the painting and in the realistic conflict depicted.

Among the most imposing paintings are High Tide and Sandy Beach with Breakers, both of which capture the majestic force of the ocean, limned in simplified geometric patterns. High Tide with its female protagonists in the foreground remains a genre scene, while Sandy Beach with the crashing waves foreshadows Homer’s late period of pure seascapes.

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Throughout this period Homer continued to illustrate books and magazines.  The Nooning depicts a young an resting on the grass during a break from farm work, his dog patiently sharing the respite.  The black/white illustration reveals Homer’s keen eye for character and observation, but when he uses the drawing as a study for the finished oil of the same name, he shrouds the scene in dark chiaroscuro so that the dog almost disappears and the atmosphere and sense of place eclipse the characters.

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The third gallery is devoted to works from 1880-1886. In 1883 Homer moved to Prouts Neck, where he lived for his remaining years. The canvasses here reflect the rugged character of the Maine coast and Homer’s close affinity for the mercurial mods of the sea. It was in this period on a trip to England that Homer acquired the camera (1881 vintage) on display in the exhibition.   There are watercolors of Prouts Neck which are executed with a firm sense of line and simplicity of form and color. There are some handsome figure studies such as Two Fisher Girls at Tynemouth which remind of how sure a draughtsman Homer was and also again suggest the influence of the French Romantic Realists, and there is his masterpiece 1886 oil, Eight Bells, which shows two fishermen, their backs to viewer confronting the surf in their dory with their navigation devices in hand.

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The fourth gallery covers 1884-1904 and contains some strikingly modern works.  Homer continued to travel a great deal in this period, not only to Europe, but also to Florida and Quebec.  There is a well-observed oil of Deer Drinking that uses geometric brush strokes which hint of Manet and even an early Cezanne, and there is the arresting JumpingTrout which depicts the large fish arcing over the dark midnight-hued canvas, its scales illuminated by the moonlight and shining with an eerie luminescence,  (It is a work which surely influenced Andrew Wyeth’s painting of the herring fishermen on display in the adjacent gallery.)

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The two standouts of this late period are the large canvas 1894 Fisher Girl with the woman’s figure dominating against a plain gray background, the fretwiork of the net making a decorative pattern across her shoulder and simple dress.  It is a painting with a sense of solidity and yet a sense of atmosphere; one can feels the wind in her hair and in the billowing draperies of her skirt.  The other is the 1894 High Cliff which makes a rocky Maine promontory the focal point high above the crashing surf.  Here Homer has abandoned all narrative and appealed to the view in purely visceral terms.

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The final section of the exhibit covers the last seven years of the artist’s life from 1893-1910. There are a number of watercolors and depictions of places from Homer’s ongoing travels, which indicate the artist’s continuing interest in abstraction, montage, and seriality. In these man continues to become a smaller presence in the natural world.  Or there is the eerie but striking painting of Fountain at Night which shows the fountain at Columbian Exposition with dark horses, almost palpable spray, all emerging from a blue-gray haze.

The exhibition is complemented by a few well-chosen paintings in the Becker Gallery by Homer’s Maine contemporaries or artists whom he influenced, among them Andrew Wyeth, Charles Woodbury, Marsden Hartley, and James Fitzgerald.  There are also three short vintage movies made by early 20th century Maine videographers.

Throughout the exhibition, the viewer has the opportunity not only to witness the development of Winslow Homer’s style and artistic vision, but one gets to see how the artist interacted with the emerging medium of photography. In the beginning, especially during his years as an illustrator, Homer used photographs as source material for his art.  The camera enabled him to capture an image and bring it back to the studio to develop. The camera also served a commercial function for Homer in his early career, allowing him to reproduce his paintings and drawings by a photomechanical process for the art marketplace. It was only in the 1880s that Homer began to take the medium seriously.  He began to use his own camera to photograph scenes and images, and he grew interested in the visual affects one could create within the medium itself. In later years the camera continued to be his tool to document his travels or to create studies for his larger works, but one begins to see that Homer begins to translate some of the visual effects captured on film into his canvasses.

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Winslow Homer remains one of the giants of American art, an artist whose five decade career spans several trends in late 19th century art – among them genre painting, Romantic Realism, and finally emerging modernism. Possessed of a strong sense of atmospheric color and light, a keen eye for arresting composition, and a storyteller’s knack for creating time, place, and character, Homer’s most singular quality may have been his incisive observation. And as this exhibition demonstrates, Homer’s relationship with the camera was no small part in developing that skill.

Bowdoin College Museum has mounted a major exhibition along the lines of its Edward Hopper show of several years ago.  It should draw visitors all summer and fall before it travels to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.  Brandywine’s curator Thomas Padon sums up the significance well by saying, “Winslow Homer defined the look of America in the second half of the nineteenth century.”

Winslow Homer and the Camera is on display Tuesday – Sunday at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, ME until October 28, 2018, and is free to the public.   http://www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum/  207-725-3275

 

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | www.scene4.com

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold is a writer and journalist.
Her latest book is Return Trip - Ten Stories
She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.
 

©2018 Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold
 ©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

 

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August 2018

Volume 19 Issue 3

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