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Sunday, May 14, 2023

My Art History: Winslow Homer

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Winslow Homer in front of his painting, "The Gulf Stream"

When I was young and living in New Jersey, I had very limited access to Fine Art as such.  Instead, the walls of my home were hung with a few needlework samplers, family photos and a large, nicely-framed reproduction of a painting by Eric Sloane.  The painting depicted an idyllic scene: a tableau featuring an old-fashioned wooden bridge reaching lazily over a quiet creek.  A boy with a straw-hat lounged by the water, and an advertisement for Red Man Chewing Tobacco decorated the plank side of the bridge.  I'm not sure why my parents bought this nostalgic scene, but perhaps it was a reminder of their rural upbringing in the Deep South and gave them comfort in their New Jersey home.  I loved that painting.

Art museums weren't part of my world.  (Nor were public libraries, but that's another story.)  We lived near Princeton, and though it had a museum, we didn't go.  And not so far away New York City and Philadelphia with their abundance of museums, but it was difficult to get to.  My mother took my sister and me to Manhattan once, by train or maybe it was by bus.  It was an adventure:  the elevator ride to the top of the Empire State Building; NBC's Radio City Hall and the puppets from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," tiny in their glass display cases; and at every intersection, the gauntlet of feet and legs, furious as the workings of a mechanical harvester, which we little people worked hard to avoid.  But we didn't go to any museums. It wasn't until we moved to Atlanta and I became a teenager that I made my first museum visit.

Strangely, despite the lack of art, we had a book.  It was a coffee-table book, hard for little hands to hold.  I ended up spending hours with it, sprawled out on the living room floor.  The book was titled something like "One Hundred and One Masterpieces."  I don't know where it came from, but it was my mother's.  I leafed through the book so much that pages were starting to come unglued. I remember in particular Winslow Homer's (1836-1910) "The Gulf Stream":  a lone man, rowing in a broken-masted sloop, surrounded by gape-mouthed sharks with a waterspout churning menacingly in the distance.

The Gulf Stream
28x49, Oil/Canvas, 1899/1906
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Snap the Whip
12x20, Oil/Canvas, 1872
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

"The Gulf Stream" is a far cry from the nostalgic innocence of Sloane's "End of Summer."  But Homer painted that kind of scene, too.  Here's "Snap the Whip," a scene in which a group of barefoot boys, holding hands and "snapping the whip" to see if the  child at the fast end can hold on.  Despite the energy of the game, the scene is beset with a sense of stillness; the horizontal lines of field, sky and cloud patterns form a static backdrop, with the rustic red schoolhouse acting as a weight to keep it all in place.  Although I like both paintings, "Snap the Whip" appeals to me more because of the calm landscape.

Born in Boston (1836), Homer spent his childhood in Cambridge.  His  mother, a gifted watercolorist, was his first teacher.  At 19, he apprenticed to a lithographer in Boston but soon joined Harper's Weekly as a freelance illustrator.  After moving to New York City at 23, he opened a studio and began studies at the National Academy of Design.  Two years later, the Civil War broke out, and Harper's sent him to the front lines.  (His lifelong experience as as plein air painter no doubt helped in recording accurate and necessarily quick studies.)  But his journey from illustrator to "easel painter" was short, and he started to exhibit at the National Academy as early as 1863.  Later,  he made trips to France and England, finally settling in Prouts Neck, Maine. Eventually, he started making regular trips to Florida and New York's Adirondack Mountains for a change of scenery before dying in 1910 at 73.  Today, the Portland Museum of Art owns the Prouts Neck Studio, which is open for tours.