Monday, August 5, 2013

Give me Winslow Homer anytime

Winslow Homer's "Thanksgiving in Camp," was published Nov. 29, 1862, in Harper's Weekly. 
Winslow Homer entered the American consciousness as an illustrator. He had already worked in the field before 1861, but his drawings of military life during the Civil War reached thousands of readers hungry for news of the boys at the front.

Reproduced in Harper’s Weekly, these works reinforced the romantic delusion of war as an exercise in camaraderie and gallantry. Drawn from imagination, Homer's cavalry and bayonet charges looked bold and dashing. He drew Christmastime mail call with Union soldiers as wide-eyed as children. He depicted men at leisure gathered round a sutler’s tent on Thanksgiving. He celebrated the songs the soldiers sang, from “The Girl I Left behind Me” to “Dixie.”

Winslow Homer
Modern viewers can see in these wartime drawings the hand of the mature Homer. He experiments. His compositions and portrayal of human nature hold the eye. The fire in his pencil strokes will soon animate his oil and watercolor canvases. But as an artist in his 20s, Homer clearly knew that success as a newspaper illustrator required images that would be seen as patriotic.

The artist’s beginnings and development as an artist are the hallmarks of a special exhibition of his work at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. The show is on view till Sept. 8.

The museum, a gem in its own right, is undergoing major renovation. Someone there made the wise decision to keep the cash flow going this summer by hauling out and mounting the Clarks’ Homer collection. The couple had an eye for Homer and the money to act on their impulses. They collected more than 200 works, including drawings, oil paintings, watercolors, prints, sketches and correspondence.

Being an artist, even one as prolific and versatile as Homer, was not an easy way to make a living. To eat, you had to sell pictures. The letters on display at the Clark show Homer as a hard-nosed businessman in the American vein. In 1893, he wrote: “I will paint for money at any time. Any subject, any size.” Even so, he did not achieve financial stability until he was in in his 60s.
As much as I like his war scenes, my favorite Homer works are the large oil paintings he made late in life at and around Prouts Neck, Maine. Years ago, long before his studio and house there were open to the public, Wesley McNair, my close friend and now Maine’s poet laureate, knew the fellow who took care of these properties. He arranged for my wife and me to tour them. I had seen Homer’s roiling seascapes by then, and walking along the ocean I felt in the sights and sounds of the crashing waves Homer's excitement to paint them. Nothing could come between the old artist and the elements.

Homer's "West Point, Prouts Neck," which is on display at the Clark.
Several of these paintings grace the walls of the Clark, including “West Point, Prouts Neck,” from 1900, and its companion piece, “Eastern Point.”  In a letter, Homer called the former “the best that I have painted.”

During the spring I had the privilege of seeing the American Civil War art show in Washington, D.C. It is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through Sept. 2. There are several Homers in this show, including some wonderful paintings of African-Americans in the South during the 1870s. I did not see Homer's trip south represented in the Clark collection, but it is possible I missed something.

What is at the Clark is terrific, and the crowds last Friday affirmed Homer’s place in the pantheon of American art. The Civil War sesquicentennial is a great occasion to take in this master’s work, but give me Homer anytime.

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