An artist at the intersection of photography and painting
By J. Chambless
'The Nooning' (ca. 1872), oil on canvas, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
By John Chambless
Born in 1836, Winslow Homer came of age in an era when the art of photography was expanding by leaps and bounds. As his own painting developed along with the new technology, Homer embraced the possibilities of the medium, and found ways to reproduce and market his paintings to a larger audience.
The Brandywine River Museum of Art is hosting a huge show of Homer's paintings, prints, watercolors and drawings, as well as archival photos, through February. “Winslow Homer: Photography and the Art of Painting” is a wide-ranging exhibition of more than 100 items, ranging from Homer's major paintings to photos of him on the beach, his paint-encrusted palette and two cameras he used.
Homer's career began with depicting Civil War scenes for Harper's Weekly and other publications, making him keenly aware of how paintings and drawings could be turned into images for mass distribution. He also learned to work from photos. Although his 1864 oil, “Albert Post,” shows a soldier in a rather stiff pose, paintings such as “Skirmish in the Wilderness” (1864) conveys the small, confused nature of most Civil War battles, with the soldiers barely visible in the gloom of a deep forest. Homer saw the results of war, and the somber nature of “Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave” (1865) acknowledges the grim reality of death, and hints at the unsettled issues that sparked the conflict and continued after the war officially ended.
After the war, Homer traveled extensively. “Artists Sketching in the White Mountains” (1868) is a wonderfully wry comment on the booming trade in producing popular images, as three artists line up to paint the same mountain scene – Homer including himself in the line of copyists. A similar sentiment is seen in “White Mountain Wagon” (1869), in which the vista is obscured by a wagon packed with tourists turning a corner. The point Homer is making is the commercialization of nature, and how the intrusion of tourists obscures the views everyone has come to see.
His developing skills as an artist are clear in paintings such as “Sandy Beach With Breakers,” a simple depiction of white surf and clouds, and a wide swath of unoccupied sand. In “Evening on the Beach,” he shows two women in voluminous skirts trying to maintain their modesty in a high wind.
But a hallmark of most of Homer's work is quiet observation. His figures don't take center stage or announce themselves as the focus of the painting. In “Weaning the Calf,” for instance, the calf being taken away from its mother is in shadow, while the focus is on two young boys who look on, perhaps recognizing their own impending maturity.
Homer's famous “The Nooning” (1872) is another reflective moment, in which the face of the boy lying in the grass is barely visible, yet the introspective gaze and the warm summer day are universal.
There are quite a few photos of Homer himself, as well as his home and studio on a rocky coastline in Proust's Neck, Maine. A private man who revealed little of himself in his work, Homer was a consummate craftsman, preparing reproductions of paintings he thought would sell well, and experimenting with new techniques, some of which – like the foggy print of his “The Fisher Girl” – didn't turn out to his satisfaction. It's interesting to compare his “Eight Bells” (1886) with the etching of the work that came out the next year. The two sailors in the work are much the same, but the sea and sky beyond them are simplified and slightly rearranged for the etching.
As a fascinating sidelight, there's a collotype of one of Muybridge's “Animal Locomotion” photo series, showing a man running and picking up a baseball. It's a thrill to see the landmark series of images – which changed how the world depicted motion – up close on a gallery wall.
As a mature artist, Homer achieved moments of grandeur such as “High Cliff, Coast of Maine” (1894), a large composition that lets the collision of the waves on the massive rocks create all the drama necessary. One of the last paintings in the show is “Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog” (1894), a gray/tan composition that shows the outline of Homer's home in a haze, but doesn't reveal details. It's a fitting image for an artist who shared so much of his artwork with a wide audience, but kept his personal details close.
The exhibition is running along with the crowd-pleasing “Brandywine Christmas” display, so expect big crowds of people looking at the trains and trees. But by revealing Homer's fascinating life and works, it deserves an extended visit as well.
“Winslow Homer: Photography and the Art of Painting” continues through Feb. 17 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art (Route 1, Chadds Ford). Visit www.brandywine.org
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.