Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place

June 5 - September 6, 2010



Label Text

Trappers Resting, 1874
Watercolor on wove paper
9 3/4 x 13 3/4 inches
Signed lower right: Homer 1874
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.6
Winslow Homer took to the woods and in so doing changed the way Americans looked at their environment. He traveled to the Adirondacks of New York for the first time in 1870, sketching, painting, and producing illustrations of this planned wilderness for the popular journals Every Saturday and Harper's Weekly. He returned repeatedly and, over time, developed relationships with the hired hands and guides of the North Woods Club. Trappers Resting is a document of Homer's passionate interest in the rugged, outdoor life and stands as a wistful icon of traditional labor in an ever-changing and increasingly fast-paced world.
Guide Carrying a Deer, 1891
Watercolor on ivory wove paper
14 x 20 1/16 inches
Inscribed upper right: To C. S. H., Jr., with the compts. of Winslow Homer Christmas 1891
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.10
Seasons and cycles abound in Guide Carrying a Deer. The autumnal colors of the hillside scrub explicitly mark the calendar, while cleanly felled trees note the changes brought by man to the Adirondacks. Homer's poignant choices of an adolescent guide and a young buck emphasize the artist's ability to distill the vicissitudes of life and death into a single image. A Christmas gift to his brother, the sketch itself may have been a reference to Homer's own sense of the passage of time. Although Homer went on to develop this study into a large oil painting, the spontaneity of watercolor lends the composition drama and authenticity. The guide's left foot seemingly steps off the paper, setting up a perception of youthful vigor overcoming the awkward uphill carry. Twin peaks on the ominous and distant ridgeline suggest the rhythm and spring of muscle and sinew as the guide hefts his burden.
The Guide, 1889
Watercolor on ivory wove paper
13 3/4 x 19 1/2 inches
Signed lower left: Winslow Homer 1889
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.8
Rufus Wallace, a hired hand at the North Woods Club in Minerva, New York, modeled for Homer for almost twenty-five years. Wallace, often depicted alongside a younger model to suggest intergenerational camaraderie, is seen here in advanced age and alone. He is the light-struck protagonist in the center of a dark and foreboding scene. But for the shaft of sunshine that illuminates his face, paddle, and wake, Wallace would recede into the forest, a natural man in an urban age. Although Wallace himself is an archetype, his vessel provides an instant sense of place. The guide boat, perfected in the mid-nineteenth century, provided a sturdy and lightweight means to navigate the Adirondack's rivers and lakes. As the region evolved into a controlled wilderness for Americans pursuing the experience of nature as a cure for the perceived dangers of modern life, hours in a guide boat and the company of rugged individuals like Wallace were widely held to be therapeutic pastimes.
Windy Day, Cullercoats, 1881
Graphite and gouache on tan laid paper
11 3/16 x 20 1/4 inches
Signed lower left: Winslow Homer 1881
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.15
Homer's sense of bravado, previously restrained by his fondness for irony, is on full display in Windy Day, Cullercoats. The product of the artist's eighteen-month stay on the North Sea, drawings such as this reflect Homer's search for authentic experience in everyday life. Impressed by the hearty women of this fishing village, Homer sketched his model from a low angle, creating a dramatic sense of perspective that renders the figure heroic. Homer's refined eye can be seen in how he delineates the arch of the woman's back, leaning away from the wind just as the mast of the vessel strains against the sail. Her billowing apron demonstrates the force of nature buffeting the fleet heading to sea in the background. With sleeves rolled up and market basket at the hip, Homer's figure is muscular, capable, and self-contained in the face of a rugged and challenging environment. Homer's technical genius is revealed not only in his forceful draftsmanship but also in his exquisite use of negative space.
Girl Seated on Hillside Overlooking the Water, 1878
Watercolor and graphite on paper
8 3/4 x 11 5/16 inches
Signed lower left: 1878/Winslow Homer
Gift of Lily W. Russell and Family, 1998.28
Images of children enjoyed great currency in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. As the United States celebrated its centennial and prepared to step out onto the world stage as an international power, nostalgic views of rural life and the innocence of youth served as visual substitutes for conversations about change and modernity. Painted in 1878 during Homer's stay at Houghton Farm -- the summer home of Lawson and Lucy Valentine in Montville, New York -- this scene depicts a girl on the cusp of adolescence, singular and alone, staring into a mirrorlike lake. Her head is turned away from the picture plane, hiding the child's features and rendering her universal. She is lent character by a bright red ribbon in her long braid -- the small flash of color a device favored by Homer. A symbol of the young nation, she pensively looks into a bright, but opaque, future.
Wild Geese in Flight, 1897
Oil on canvas
33 7/8 x 49 3/4 inches
Signed lower right: Homer 1897
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.2
The first owner of Wild Geese in Flight insisted later in life that the painting originally bore the title At the Foot of the Lighthouse. This shift in identification is telling, for it changes the image from a hunting scene with connotations of the sporting life and perhaps providing for human sustenance to a painting of caprice as the chance encounter with a lighthouse claims the geese without reason. The unseen navigational aid ironically becomes as fatal as bird shot from a hunter's blind.
Taking an Observation, circa 1886
Oil on panel
15 1/4 x 24 inches
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.3
Winslow Homer learned his craft as an illustrator, employing lessons perfected in the commercial world throughout his career. The monochromatic palette of Taking an Observation is a nod to Homer's days of producing images in the service of text, for painting en grisaille was a popular technique used by artists communicating with engravers in the burgeoning publishing industry. This striking study in gray, however, is a purely aesthetic choice, as Homer executed the scene to be a decorative panel for the cabin of his brother's sailing yacht.
Looking Out to Sea, Cullercoats, 1882
Watercolor on paper
13 3/4 x 20 inches
Signed lower right: Winslow Homer 1882
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.17
Homer admired the constancy of character found in the women of Cullercoats. Time and time again, he sketched the heroic strength and capability of these English fishermen's wives as archetypes of traditional female labor. The prominent baskets and fishing nets, age-old symbols of industry, sharply contrast with the frivolity of parasols and croquet mallets found in the hands of Homer's American women of the 1870s. The ancient narrative of taking sustenance from the ocean is robustly captured in these large watercolors, though Homer is quick to remind the viewer that modern life lurks on the horizon in the form of a small, dark steamship.
An Unexpected Catch, 1890
Watercolor on paper
11 1/2 x 19 3/4 inches
Signed lower left: Homer 90
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.9
Winslow Homer adhered to the color theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul throughout his career. In 1860, Homer's brother Charles gave him an English translation of the famous text by the French chemist. Homer called the book his "Bible," annotating the volume and dating his comments in 1873, 1882, and 1884. Canonical or not, Chevreul sought to document and describe the experience of color, focusing attention on the influence of light and emphasizing the ability of contrasting colors to catch and hold the eye of the beholder -- here, witness the way in which the red fly dazzles the viewer, just as it proves fatally tempting to the unwanted sunfish.
Boy in a Boatyard, 1873
Watercolor and gouache over graphite on off-white wove paper
7 1/2 x 13 5/8 inches
Signed lower right: Winslow Homer 1873
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.5
Homer's genius lay in his ability not only to depict place but also to convey sensation. A hot sun, having bleached the shingles of the boathouse and dried out the barrel staves and wooden casks littering the yard, warms the brow of boy and viewer alike. Remarkably, Boy in a Boatyard is the product of Homer's first summer of intensive work in watercolor. Despite the novelty of the medium to the artist, the painting displays a confidence of technique readily seen in the contrast between the bright, drying sail and the moody shadows. The solitary child is a motif that Homer repeated in the 1870s, perhaps as a surrogate for his own desire to retreat from society.
Portrait of Benjamin Johnson Lang, 1895
Graphite on wove paper
16 x 13 3/8 inches
Signed lower left: W.H. / April 19, 1895
Gift of William D. Hamill, 1991.19.3
Winslow Homer shared confidences with his sister-in-law Martha, known as Mattie. Married to Homer's brother Charles, Mattie preserved their correspondence, thus providing a rare glimpse at the artist's social life at Prouts Neck, in Boston, and in New York. This pencil portrait is of Mattie's great friend Benjamin Johnson Lang (1837-1909) and, when combined with Homer's letter to Mattie, serves as a document of the tight-knit Homer family. Lang -- a prominent Boston symphony conductor, pianist, and organist -- sat for Homer on April 19, 1895, in the musician's studio on Newbury Street in Boston. Homer sent the sketch to Mattie the following day as a token of his affection, along with a detailed letter describing his fidgety sitter.
Sharpshooter, 1863
Oil on canvas
12 1/4 x 16 1/2 inches
Signed lower left: W. Homer 63
Gift of Barbro and Bernard Osher, 3.1993.3
Closely cropped and devoid of the heroic conventions of nineteenth-century military pomp, Winslow Homer's remarkable debut in oil is a novel painting of a modern war. A product of Homer's firsthand experiences at the front, the inherent tension of the image derives from the painter's ability to essentialize a soldier engaged in the specific act of targeting a chosen adversary. The painting is at once about the universality of faceless death in war and the precision of killing. The discomfort provoked by this contradiction transcends time and elicits a chill today as it did when Homer himself wrote that such activity was "as near murder" as he could imagine.
Weatherbeaten, 1894
Oil on canvas
28 1/2 x 48 3/8 inches
Signed lower right: Homer 94
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.1
Late in life, Homer turned his hand to the timeless drama of the Atlantic Ocean. His paintings of the 1890s are archetypes of close observation and direct experience, the product of a decade of living and painting at Prouts Neck. These dark paintings -- forceful, poetic, and exhibiting an intimate knowledge of the sea in its many moods -- redirected popular attention to the coast and repositioned New England as a final frontier. With the American West declared closed by historian Frederick Jackson Turner the previous year, Homer's Weatherbeaten is an existential manifesto about the challenges of nature in the modern world. The wilderness, long a westerly ideal in the collective memory of the United States, is relocated to a timeless place where the waves of the Atlantic strike the Eastern Seaboard.
Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, 1868
Oil on panel
9 1/2 x 15 7/8 inches
Inscribed lower left: White Mts 1868
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.4
The White Mountains served as a national landscape in the years that followed the Civil War. One of the first regions to engender and exploit a tourist economy in the United States, the towns surrounding the Presidential Range of New Hampshire provided the infrastructure for a generation of artists to capture the view while taking in the fresh air of the country. Painting Mount Washington, the highest peak in the range, came to be considered a rite of passage for artists of every stripe. Homer -- ironic in temperament and possessing a keen, self-deprecating sense of humor -- took obvious pleasure in depicting himself as last in this queue of plein-air painters as evidenced by the knapsack bearing the inscription "Homer." Although Homer would continue to paint genre subjects throughout the 1870s, the subtle critique evidenced in Artists Sketching in the White Mountains would eventually lead him to darker, existential dramas, such as Weatherbeaten.
Leaping Trout, 1889
Watercolor on paper
14 1/16 x 20 1/16 inches
Signed lower right: Winslow Homer 1889
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.7
Winslow Homer's credentials as a sportsman were well established by the time he returned to the Adirondacks in 1889. A seasoned and savvy fisherman, he had experience angling around the world and particularly enjoyed casting for brook trout with his brother Charles at the North Woods Club in Minerva, New York. Homer tarried at the club in 1889, staying for almost four months. The artist's firsthand knowledge of the feeding habits of trout and his keen ability to depict a fish rising to take the fly have made his Adirondack scenes canonical images in the history of American sport.
Pickerel Fishing, 1892
Watercolor on wove paper
11 1/4 x 20 inches
Signed lower right: Winslow Homer 1892 (sketch)
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.11
As a student of the color theories of the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, Homer well knew the dazzling impact of the red pigment at the epicenter of Pickerel Fishing. Homer freely employs blues and greens in the lush composition to create a watery background for the striking scene of blood in the water as the large fish bleeds out its gills and stains the lake around the guide boat. Sanguinary and beautiful, this work exhibits Homer's frank assessment of sport, nature, and the circle of life.
Two Men in a Canoe, 1895
Watercolor on gray laid paper
14 x 20 inches
Signed lower right: Winslow Homer P. Q. Canada 1895
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.12
Homer's ability to depict quiescence rivaled his skill at capturing the raw force of nature on display in works such as Weatherbeaten. Painted on one of Homer's late visits to Canada, Two Men in a Canoe is a study in subtlety and technique. The artist employs the paper itself to color both water and sky, splitting earth and heaven with deft, minimal brush strokes to create the shore out of misty wash. The canoe's silent wake and the whip of the fishing line -- both rendered in pure white gouache -- testify to Homer's ability to produce watercolors that all but make sound.
Young Ducks, 1897
Watercolor on wove paper
14 x 21 inches
Signed lower left: Winslow Homer '97
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.13
Winslow Homer hunted and fished in the company of his older brother, Charles. The brothers frequented the North Woods Club in the Adirondacks and by 1893 were traveling to Quebec in search of sport. Ever perceptive to sartorial custom, Homer depicts the guide in the stern of the canoe in local French Canadian costume, complete with knit cap and red sash. Sixty-one years old when he painted Young Ducks, the artist no doubt envied the stamina of his companions, as well as their lives as natural men of the north as the nineteenth century waned.
Bringing in the Nets, 1887
Watercolor on paper
13 3/4 x 21 1/4 inches
Signed lower left: Winslow Homer 1887
Signed lower right: Winslow Homer
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.14
A contrast to Homer's strong and jaunty women of Cullercoats is the solitary fisherman of Bringing in the Nets. Painted some five years after Homer's return from his English sojourn, this American scene but faintly echoes his earlier explorations of the nobility of taking sustenance from the sea. Whereas Homer depicted his female models from Cullercoats in capable poses on promontories, in this later work, the fisherman is up to his knees in high tide, bent over by his burden, and all but tangled himself in marsh grass. Great houses on the horizon reinforce the man's station in life, in contrast to the earlier watercolors, wherein Homer depicted the simple folk of Cullercoats as a natural royalty.
The Breakwater, Cullercoats, 1882
Watercolor on ivory wove paper
13 1/4 x 19 3/4 inches
Signed lower right: Winslow Homer 1882
Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.16
Homer remained fascinated by the women of Cullercoats throughout his stay in the English fishing village. Men, when they appear at all, are consigned to supporting roles, backs turned, carrying gear, and lurking in the shadows. Homer's ability to capture the dignity and strength of these fisherman's wives speaks to his profound sensitivity to the timeless quality of their lives. Looking closely at the scene through Homer's eyes, it is hard to tell if the women or the breakwater is better equipped to withstand the forces of the North Sea.

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