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Winslow Homer In America

November 13, 2007 - January 6, 2008

 

Winslow Homer is widely regarded as the greatest American artist of the nineteenth century. Most historians identify him as one of the most important American artists of all time. The warmth and charm with which he interpreted the American experience has enchanted generation after generation. His best-known illustrations including Snap-the-Whip, The Noon Recess, Gathering Berries, and Waiting for a Bite are among the one hundred twenty five wood engravings at the R. W. Norton Art Gallery opening November 13, 2007.

 

(above: Winslow Homer: Gathering Berries, 1874, wood engraving)

 

The exhibition Winslow Homer In America provides a rare opportunity to view an extensive collection of masterful engravings produced by the artist in his youth between the ages of twenty and thirty-seven. Homer's themes and subjects changed and matured over the years from depictions of park scenes, city life and the countryside prior to the outbreak of the Civil War to more subdued rural scenes after 1866. Homer's mood and sentiment changed after the War. Turning away from the problems of reconstructing the nation, Homer focused on more pleasurable pursuits and interests that included leisure-time activities. In the years that followed, Homer began to enlarge his focus beyond city life, making several visits to nearby areas to see what pastoral America was like. Some of his most accomplished works draw upon his exposure to rural life such as The Veteran in a New Field, 1867, Summer in the Country, 1869, and The Dinner Horn, 1870.

Perhaps the most striking feature of this exhibition is Homer's images of America's youth, which he produced in the mid 1870s. Some of the best examples include Snap-the-Whip, The Nooning, Sea-Side Sketches-A Clam-Bake, Gloucester Harbor and The Noon Recess, all made in 1873; as well as Gathering Berries, Waiting for a Bite, and See-Saw-Gloucester, Massachusetts, from 1874. Many of these engravings reveal hints of the painter to come in the late 19th and early 20th century while Impressionism was still flourishing in Europe.

 

(above: Winslow Homer: The Noon Recess, 1873, wood engraving)

 

As popular as Homer has remained through the years, it was not until the early 1950s that his work as an illustrator was rediscovered. At that time, many of our nation's major museums were aggressively collecting his prints, realizing that Homer's wood engravings were only printed on newsprint and illustrated in some of the most popular newspapers and journals published between 1857 to the late 1870s. Some of Homer's other engravings were published in rare-edition books through the 1880s.

Homer's prints provide valuable insight into his artistic achievements and a view of the society and times in which he lived and so carefully recorded with his illustrated works. As social commentary, Homer's illustrations are recognized by historians and scholars as being highly important visual documents, which accurately depict the scenes of the day.

From the very beginning, as early as in his late teens, Homer had his finger on the pulse of American life and his eye on the American scene. Homer started his career when he was nineteen years of age, as an apprentice to the lithographer J.H. Bufford, in Boston where he was born. In 1857 on his twenty-first birthday he began to freelance as an artist and illustrator for leading newspapers in Boston and New York, including Harper's Weekly, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, and Appleton's Journal. His success as a newspaper illustrator soon gave him the distinction of becoming the most promising and most popular illustrator in America.

During the American Civil War, Harper's Weekly arranged for Homer to travel to Virginia where Union soldiers were camped. His first wood engravings from the front were morale-building scenes, showing Union strength and activities that soon turned to well-crafted views of clashing armies and the serious issues of a nation at war with itself.

Homer's first efforts as a painter began with his Civil War paintings that demonstrated remarkable artistic ability, which appealed to the masses. His interest in national themes was further explored in his works of the late 1860s and 1870s, which include scenes of American life and often detailed images that reflected social change.

Homer's arrival on the graphic arts scene coincided with the advent of the illustrated newspaper in America. This new journalistic form, which incorporated artist/engravers as illustrators, began in England in 1842 with the Illustrated London News. This lively new form of reporting the news drew the interest of the general public, and quite often newspapers had difficulty getting enough artist/engravers for the volume of work to be done. Homer immediately decided to switch his craft from lithography to wood engraving and in 1857 sold his first picture, a Boston street scene, to Ballou's Pictorial, the first major American illustrated newspaper. In all, Homer produced 265 wood engravings that ended abruptly when he turned his attention to painting in 1878. Only later did he accept a few commissions to create wood engravings for Century Magazine (1886-87) and Scribner's Monthly (1880) .

By the mid-1860s Homer was at the threshold of his career as a fine artist. In 1869 and 1870 Homer produced some of his most successful engravings including: The Summit of Mount Washington, All in the Gay and Golden Weather, The Beach at Long Branch, The Fishing Party, Spring Blossoms, Trapping in the Adirondacks, and two images depicting the game of croquet. Summer in the Country and What Shall We Do Next? (produced two years before Édouard Manet painted his croquet scenes in 1871). Homer's interest in the game of croquet coincides with the appearance of illustrated rulebooks heralding the transfer of the game from England to the United States. From the outset, Homer's images of croquet display knowledge of the rulebooks and familiarity with conventions of the game. His series on the subject consists of five oil paintings, two chalk drawings, and the pair of wood engravings that are loosely based upon the painting now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Before retreating to the countryside, Homer spent a considerable amount of time painting fashionable young women in New York society and nearby New Jersey. Published in Harper's, two of these works include an isolated segment of late nineteenth century American life among the upper class: The Morning Walk-The Young Ladies' School Promenading the Avenue and Waiting for Calls on New Year's Day. Homer contrasted this theme with the harshness of the working class characterized in his engraving New England Factory Life-"Bell-Time," in which he portrays a scene of hundreds of workers (carrying lunch pails and baskets) changing shifts at a local factory. The scene depicts people of all ages, children and elderly alike, who must work to support the economic needs of their families. Even in this large-scale overview of the masses Homer provides an intimate glimpse into the social realities of inner-class separation-an homely looking couple engaged in conversation appear attracted to each other while on the opposite side an attractive young woman walks alone, suggesting that even within the social classes man is resolved to keeping with his own kind.

In the summer of 1873, Homer began to concentrate on subjects that included children. This was a period in which he produced many of his most popular works. Snap-The-Whip is by far the most popular and famous of all Homer's wood engravings. The Country School, painted in 1871-72 and exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1872, shows the interior of the schoolhouse in Snap the Whip and is also similar to the 1873 wood engraving The Noon Recess, published in Harper's Weekly. In the Harper's engraving, the blackboard contains legible numbers and the letters of the alphabet from A to H. Homer, like a mischievous school child, also inscribed his own initials W H on the blackboard. As was frequently the case in these years, Homer made a variant design of the picture for the Harper's engraving. He shows the teacher and one student doing makeup reading while seen through the window are children playing a game similar to Snap-The-Whip. The teacher appears tired or perhaps longs to be out in the sunny air and looking forward to the end of the day. Clearly she is thinking of being somewhere else during the reading lesson.

The popularity of Homer's work is due in part to the fact that he captured for us the human change and development that took place in our nation as the times changed. America moved from a rural, predominantly agricultural nation to one that faced political and industrial challenges and struggles that left the country with heavy personal scars and a loss of lives as well as a change in our way of living that could never be reversed. Homer recorded and remembered for us, not the battle scenes of the Civil War, but the way of life in the camps during the waiting hours; he captured our moments at work and while at leisure in both the city and the rural areas of America; he focused our attention on the relationship we have with the great poets of our time and reminded us of the sweetness of courtship and romance as well as documenting our social struggles by illustrating scenes that focused on the lives of African Americans following the years of slavery; and he gave us hope in the hopes and dreams of America's youth for a better future.

Winslow Homer In America is a national touring exhibition organized by Contemporary and Modern Print Exhibitions of Laguna Niguel, California. The exhibit will continue at the Norton Art Gallery through January 6, 2008.

 

(above: Winslow Homer: See-Saw-Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1874, wood engraving)

 

How Homer Made his Engraving for "Seesaw-Gloucester, Massachusetts"

In 1874 Winslow Homer created one of his most successful and popular engravings depicting children playing on the beach, which he titled Seesaw-Gloucester, Massachusetts. The engraving was published in Harper's Weekly on September 12 and immediately drew great praise from readers. Harper & Brothers of New York, the largest book publisher in the United States, owned the newspaper, which was started in 1857, and had reached a readership of more than a quarter of a million by the early 1870s.

The composition is a masterpiece. Homer's illustration is actually a composite of two earlier watercolor subjects-one that depicted six boys on a makeshift seasaw and the other portraying three girls playing the string game of cat's cradle.

In the original design, a watercolor that he produced during the summer of 1873 (now in the collection of the Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery, Canajoharie, New York), the composition consists of five boys on a long plank suspended over a rock to create a makeshift teeter-totter. Two boys sit at each end of the plank while the fifth boy stands in the center, legs apart to steady the board at the fulcrum of the seesaw, forming a strong triangular composition. The other half of the composition is extracted from Homer's June, 1873 watercolor Girls with Lobster (now in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art). Homer made some modifications in the engraved design to make it work for the combined composition. In Homer's restructured composition he replaces the lobster with a game of cat's cradle and placed the girls in the foreground seated on an inverted dory (which is located in the background of the earlier composition as seen in the watercolor). Homer also added a sixth boy to the composition to create a more asymmetrical balance.

In the final version, the boys and girls remain segregated and non-communicative. Although the boys dominate the space, particularly with the one boy standing in the center of the plank, the girls seated in the foreground form a strong base that stabilizes the composition. The replacement of the lobster with the string game was probably a decision made by the artist to separate areas areas of interest between boys and girls. It was not uncommon for Homer to create compositions that play on the separation of individuals in his engravings and paintings.

Cat's Cradle is one of the world's easiest string games. In simplest terms, it is defined as a box-like shape made from twisting a loop of string around the fingers, and it is played almost everywhere. Cat's cradle actually has eight or nine distinct figures, depending on the version. Skilled players are able to repeat them endlessly.

Explorers and anthropologists around the end of the 19th century discovered the game of string figure making in many parts of the world: the Arctic, North and South America, the Pacific islands, Australia, New Zealand, Africa and South East Asia. The occurrence of string figure making among such widely separated peoples led several writers to suggest an ancient origin. But the earliest evidence of string figure making that has come to light is in a Greek document of the 4th century A.D., by the Greek medical writer Oribasius (c.320-400 AD). A description of what we now call a string figure appears to be taken from the works of the writer Heraklas. While cat's cradle is a string figure game, it is not actually known when it came into being or where it began.

(above: Winslow Homer: Trapping in the Adirondacks, 1870, wood engraving)

 

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) Biographical Information

Winslow Homer was the leading Realist genre painter of the nineteenth century in America. He was born in Boston in 1836 to Charles Savage Homer Sr., a merchant whose ancestors included ships' captains who had come from England and Henrietta Maria Benson Homer, an amateur artist and homemaker who was originally from Bucksport in Down East Maine.

As a youth Winslow loved the outdoors and disliked attending school, preferring instead a direct experience in life with nature. When he was six years old, the Homer family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Harvard College. His older brother Charles graduated from Harvard with a degree in chemical engineering. Expressing a lack of interest in furthering his formal education after graduating from high school, his father engaged him as an apprentice in J. H. Bufford's lithography shop in Boston where he could learn a trade.

Winslow spent the next three years learning the skills of illustration. Exhibiting some aptitude, he was allowed to begin illustrating covers for sheet music. At the age of twenty-one he set himself up as a free-lance illustrator with a studio in Ballou's Pictorial Building and taught himself the technique of designing for wood-block engraving.

In 1857 Homer began producing illustrations for Ballou's and other weekly journals. There was a large and growing demand for artists who could illustrate for newspapers and printed journals. From 1857 to 1875 Homer produced illustrations for Ballou's Pictorial and Harper's Weekly. He moved to New York in 1859, where he attended evening classes studying life drawing at the National Academy of Design. In 1861 he studied painting with an obscure French painter, Frederic Rondel. The next year he covered the Civil War for Harper's and did his first oil painting.

During the years that he worked as an illustrator, Homer expressed himself through the content of his pictures and the aesthetic form with which he created them. The pace of New England life can be found in the themes and subjects that he chose. The traumatic upheaval of the Civil War engrossed the whole country and Homer, being a young man, could not ignore it anymore than anyone else. At the age of twenty-five he was sent to the Front for Harper's and began to see firsthand the destruction of war. With exception of just a few images (The War of the Union--A Cavalry Charge, and A Bayonet Charge), he chose not to illustrate the fighting and destruction, but instead gave readers a view of the troops in camps engaged in everyday activities, sitting around camp fires, breaking a wishbone on Thanksgiving Day, playing football, reading letters or just resting.

The postwar years gave Homer his best chance to express his views on life. He was well past his apprenticeship period and had the intense experience of the war behind him. He completed two paintings Prisoners from the Front and The Bright Side, which he entered in the Paris Exposition Universelle and booked passage to France where he stayed for a year, returning in December 1867.

During the next decade Homer produced the largest number of magazine engravings. It was the heyday of magazine engravings in wood for Homer and for other American artists as well. After his return from Europe, his art had changed in both spirit and subject. The content of his early engravings conveys his personal view abundantly. The titles are, with few exceptions, lighthearted and youthful. His postwar work took on a more serious approach. The treatment of his subjects coincided with his own maturity as a man.

Both the limitations and virtues of working with the printed medium persisted in Homer's other art throughout his life. Long after he stopped producing the black-and-white engravings for magazines and turned to watercolor and oil painting, he continued to demonstrate in his work the sense of patterning and organization, which had become deep-rooted during the early years he spent as an illustrator.

Groping his way into painting while earning his living as an illustrator, he took some art lessons at the National Academy of Design, but he was essentially a self-taught artist. Because of his popularity as an illustrator, he was nominated by his peers and was elected an associate of the National Academy in 1864 and a full member the following year.

Before focusing attention on the sea and nature, Homer created a large body of work that depicted the virtues of attractive young women enjoying an idyllic and leisurely life, as well as rural scenes with children playing and American farm life activity. In 1875 he returned to the scene of his wartime assignments to the area around Petersburg, Virginia where he conceived a series of paintings of the Negro inhabitants, now liberated from slavery. Homer became one of the first artists to examine and depict the American Negro life with a sense of reality and truth.

Having left behind the subjects he found at the New England mountain resorts and seaside vacation sites on the New Jersey coast, Homer embarked upon two new divergent experiences that would have lasting consequences on his art: he made his first pure marine painting which hinted at the direction he would later take concentrating on the sea as a subject; and his visits to a more primitive life in the pristine woods of upper New York and Canada. He went with friends to the Adirondacks to visit a farm family and to paint. The location was so remote and in such rugged terrain that it took two to three days to reach. Homer relished this primitive life where it was necessary to hunt and fish for survival, where the men as well as women were very hardy in great contrast to the New England coastal scenes of his earlier work. Homer returned to the location frequently over the years and was often accompanied by his older brother, Charles, a constant companion on trips to the north woods.

In the mid 1870s Homer took another new direction of lasting consequence. He spent the summer sketching and paintings at Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he encountered a blissful world of carefree children. On many of these outings he created images that would later become part of his greatest masterpieces, including The Berry Pickers, Shipbuilding, Gloucester Harbor and Gloucester Harbor, a scene of seven children in two dories.

In 1871 Homer spent the summer among the Catskills in the vicinity of Hurley, New York. There he found a one-room schoolhouse that caught his eye and it became the subject of several of his most important works ``including Snap-the-Whip, Country School and The Noon Recess. The young student depicted in The Noon Recess is perhaps more understandable to Homer than he reveals, since as a youth his attitude toward books was rather lackluster and did not appeal to his sensitivities for a more stimulating approach to learning and formulating his ideas.

A decade later, in 1881 Homer was nearing his middle forties and became rather dissatisfied with the direction of his career, feeling that he was limited to doing only what was expected of him. He sailed for England to the fishing village of Tynemouth on the North Sea coast where he saw people whose relation to the sea was both laborious and dangerous. He found a new stimulation that paralleled the primitive and rugged way of life that he found in the Adirondacks years earlier. His experience with the ocean, living on the North Sea coast of England, provided him with a whole new outlook and he developed a greater sense of maturity that would soon appear in his work. He soon stopped incorporating people into his paintings and began to study the sea and waves in their varying moods, the sun and clouds, the fog and rain.

Homer returned to America twenty months later and spent the last twenty-seven years of his life at Prout's Neck with winter breaks after 1898 in the West Indies or Florida. His earlier work dealt almost entirely with farm life, children, and women, and was executed in a naturalistic style. After his English experience he concentrated on creating dramatic scenes of the sea that were more heroic and somber. In later years under the influence of the English watercolor style, his work in this medium became brilliantly loose and pure, especially in his sun-drenched impressionistic studies of the West Indies.

In 1908, while vacationing in Florida, Homer suffered a stroke, which left him temporarily without full coordination and some loss of vision. He died less than two years later on September 29, 1910, in his Prout's Neck studio.

 

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these earlier articles and essays:

From TFAO's Topics in American Representational Art:

Use Resource Library's search engine in its home page to type in the keywords "wood engravings" to learn more about artists who have made this form of art. As of the date of publication of this article there are 154 citations for these keywords.

 

Also enjoy online multimedia:

a streaming slide show titled Winslow Homer's Right and Left from the National Gallery of Art, which is a narrated show interpreting one painting. Narration is by Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., senior curator of American and British paintings. A transcript is included in the presentation.

from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts the online audio segment Art on the Air, which features two-minute radio artist and curator interviews narrated by Daphne Maxwell Reid produced by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and New Millennium Studios, and directed by Ruth Twiggs and Anne Barriault, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The broadcasts focus on works of art and artists, materials, and techniques. Sample selections from 2004 include Winslow Homer. (right: Art on the Air graphic courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

from High Museum of Art partnering with the Forum Network for Winslow Homer's Watercolors: Markers in a Life Journey, (52 minutes) a lecture by Elizabeth Johns, professor emerita, art history, UPenn. in which Dr. Johns discusses the relationship of Homer's watercolors and some of his oils to his life's journey. (Lecture contributed by WABE/AFN) [May 11, 2006]

from an online course by Dr. Liana Cheney of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell titled "Art History and Film," the video Winslow Homer: An American Original, a 49 minute 1999 HBO Artists' Specials series program directed by Graeme Lynch and produced by Devine Entertainment.

from WTTW11, which is producing a series of original "Artbeat" segments, a regular feature on its nightly newsmagazine Chicago Tonight, to help audiences learn about and connect to the variety of activities that are part of American Art American City, the clip "Winslow Homer 06:34 2/14/08." For more than 50 years, WTTW11 has served the Chicago community and beyond as the nation's most watched public television station, earning a reputation for providing outstanding programming in many areas, including the arts. (text courtesy Terra Foundation for American Art). Recent programs include:

 

and other online resources:

 

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Atlantic Coast of Winslow Homer, The Introduces painter Winslow Homer (1836--1910) and shows his work featuring scenes along the Atlantic Ocean. 35-minute video Description source: Amon Carter Museum Teacher Resource Center. The Museum contains a comprehensive lending library including many videos.
 
Winslow Homer: An American Original is a 49 minute 1999 HBO Artists' Specials series program directed by Graeme Lynch and produced by Devine Entertainment. The artist Winslow Homer has become famous for his illustrations of battle scenes during the Civil War, but he feels disenchanted with what he has experienced and withdraws to a quiet farm. There he meets a pair of teenagers whose lives have been shaken by the war. Together, Homer and the kids learn from each other and move forward with life.

Winslow Homer: Society and Solitude is a 2007 full-length documentary by filmmaker Steven John Ross, professor of communication, University of Memphis. Excerpts from an April 6, 2007 press release from Colby-Sawyer College follow:

Ross, a professor at the University of Memphis, worked on the Homer documentary for six years. He is best known for his award-winning PBS documentaries, "Oh Freedom After While!" (2000),"Black Diamonds, Blues City" (1996) and "At The River I Stand," (1993), and the literary adaptations "A Game of Catch" (1990) and "The Old Forest" (1984).
 
Don Coonley, professor of humanities and communication studies at Colby-Sawyer College, is one of the film's co-producers and sound recorders. Coonley is also the on-screen and voice-over actor representing Homer in the re-creation sequences filmed at the artist's studio on Prout's Neck, Maine. Coonley and Ross have collaborated on each other's film projects over the last 28 years.
 
"Winslow Homer: Society and Solitude" exists in two forms: as a feature length documentary (one hour and 49 minutes long); and as two separate, 55-minute films, the first depicting Homer's life and work up to 1880, and the second dealing with the last three decades of his life and work.
 
The new film depicts more than 180 Homer paintings, watercolors, etchings and illustrations, which were filmed in the Homer family archives and museums such as The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The National Gallery of Art, The Portland Museum of Art and The Fogg Museum at Harvard University. Re-creations of Homer in Maine were shot with the cooperation of his descendants at his cliff-side studio in Prout's Neck. Other locations captured by 16mm cameras for this project include Gloucester, Mass., and The North Woods Club in The Adirondack Mountains.
 
This documentary offers multiple perspectives on the artist through interviews with artists and major Homer scholars. Noted scholars and artists who appear in the film include Frank Kelly, Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Judith Walsh, Sarah Burns, Linda Docherty, Elizabeth Johns, Gary Gallagher, Ted Stebbins, Marc Simpson, David Tatham, Peter Wood, Tim Rollins, David Driskell, Sue Welsh Reed, Carol Troyen, Roy Perkinson and Patricia Junker. Other scholars who served as consultants include John Wilmerding, Bruce Robertson, Katherine Woltz, Margi Conrads, Henry Adams, and Nancy Mowll Mathews.
 
Winslow Homer: The Nature of the Artist  is a 29 minute 1986 video directed by Steve York from the National Gallery of Art Series. The art of Winslow Homer is examined in this profile of the American artist, from his early illustrations of the Civil War and his picturesque scenes of the country and shore, to the powerful images of nature that characterize his mature and late work. Commentary by the American art historian John Wilmerding provides a guide to Homer's artistic progress and to his achievements, particularly his transformation of the watercolor medium from the purely descriptive into a highly expressive vehicle.
 
TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format

 

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