Progression of Art
The Army of the Potomac - A Sharp Shooter on Picket Duty
After years of working as a freelance illustrator for Harper's Weekly, Winslow Homer was contracted by the publication to serve as a war correspondent. In sharp contrast to the light-hearted tone of Homer's early illustrations, his thoughtful portrayals of the US Civil War captured both the daily lives and moments of conflict which he experienced first-hand while visiting the Union soldiers on the front lines. Less obvious to modern viewers, are the changes in the technology and warfare shown in this engraving which was later the basis of an oil painting by the artist.
In The Sharpshooter, a young soldier sits perched on a sturdy tree branch, one imagines quite high from the ground below. The barrel of his rifle steadied against a smaller branch, while his position seems a bit precarious without any true grounding for his feet. Thick pine needles provide camouflage, while a hanging canteen suggests that the soldier has been in this position for quite some time and will probably remain there. What Homer has depicted was a new and devasting style of battle, the sharpshooter, made possible by advances in the design of the rifle. "I looked through one of their rifles once when they were in a peach orchard in front of Yorktown in April, 1862," Homer recalled. "The ... impression struck me as being as near murder as anything I ever think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service." Instead of romanticizing heated scenes of battle, Homer depicted the impact of changing technologies in a straightforward, documentary manner devoid of the overt emotionality and heroic undertones so prominent in earlier depictions of war. As such, the notion of objectivity, so often associated with the Realist movement in America and Europe, finds true resonance with Homer's compositions.
Wood Engraving - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Veteran in a New Field
Among the best-known of Homer's Civil War paintings, The Veteran in a New Field demonstrates the artist's profound understanding of the socio-historical moment in which he lived. A lone farmer harvests the seemingly eternal field of wheat with a single-bladed scythe. In the lower right corner, a Union soldier's jacket and canteen signal that this farmer is also a veteran of the recent Civil War. Painted shortly after the end of the devastating war and President Abraham Lincoln's subsequent assassination, The Veteran in a New Field is an early example of Homer's ability to weave subtle narratives into his paintings. The single-bladed scythe was, by this time, an antique tool and meant to evoke notions of "the grim reaper" and allusions to the casualties of war, with some of the major battles including Gettysburg, had been waged in what had formerly been working farms. Additionally, the peaceful disbanding of troops after the war was seen as an embodiment of a democratic ideal, with references to the Roman legend of Cincinnatus who similarly returned to his farm after leading Rome to victory over her enemies, a common point of reference in Homer's time. The combination of these elements has led historians such as H. Barbara Weinberg to consider the work, "a powerful meditation on America's sacrifices and its potential for recovery."
In terms of artistic strategy, Homer's painting seemingly blends Realist and Impressionist techniques in what would be described as a uniquely American style. The working figure of the soldier, painted in a relatively naturalistic style, suggests the hard labor of the solitary figure under the bright sun as he swings his tool across the wheat. By comparison, the wheat reads as Impressionistic, even though this painting dates before the beginnings of the Parisian style or Homer's trip to France. As Nicolas Cikovsky writes, "It had been Homer's practice to paint out of doors well before he went to France, so it cannot have been Impressionism ‑ even in the improbable event that he knew of it - that introduced Homer to the practice of open-air painting. It had been a central part of his artistic method virtually from his beginnings as a painter." The blending of naturalistic and impressionist styles in this and other works from the late 1860s are thought by many to have yielded a strong influence on American Impressionism, which, while focusing on different subjects, adopted some of the same loose brushstrokes.
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Snap the Whip!
One of Homer's most famous paintings presents modern viewers with a bit of a conundrum. It appears as a simple and idyllic scene with a line of young boys holding hands and running at top speed across a field of grass, rendered in an impossibly bright Kelly green speckled with wildflowers of various hues. In the background, a small red school house rests below a patchwork sky of blue and white. The painting, titled "Snap the Whip!" (1872) seems wistful, even nostalgic, and perhaps not what one expects in discussing one of the most esteemed American painters of the 19th century. Yet, even Homer's most idyllic paintings transcend nostalgia as one looks closer to find signs of poverty, such as the children's tattered and ill-fitting clothing and bare feet. Art historian Edward Lucie-Smith described in his text, American Realism, "Childhood and the life of children took on a special significance in America in the years following the Civil War, and these images symbolized the will to rebuild and to make a stronger and more vigorous nation." Subtle allusions to the lost generation of Civil War soldiers, the young widows left behind along with the hopes for the next generation provide the underlying narrative of these post-war works which focus on the lives of young teachers and their students.
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Cotton Pickers
Winslow Homer's thoughtful composition, titled The Cotton Pickers, was completed just over a decade after the end of the US Civil War. In an era full of racist imagery, Homer returned to Virginia in the 1870s to begin work on a series of paintings depicting the lives of those newly freed from slavery but still struggling against the obstacles of entrenched bigotry. Instead of caricatures, he depicts quiet moments in the everyday lives of the newly freed African-Americans. There is no underlying moralistic tale or narrative storyline that artist presents, but in a manner similar to Veteran in a New Field and Snap the Whip!, Homer creates the impression of an observed moment in time.
Two women stand in an expansive field of cotton during harvest season, the efforts of their daily toil evident in the heavy load each carries. The monumental scale of the two figures is reminiscent of Jean-François Millet's influence, as is the rose-colored twilight sky the French Realist often employed in his sympathetic depictions of rural labor. The time of day becomes a metaphor for the era, as Homer painted this series during the closing years of the Reconstruction Era, with the removal of federal troops from the South soon to follow with the passing of The Compromise of 1877. Yet, Homer is not didactic in his approach to these genre paintings.
Although painting in a symphony of pastel hues, offset by the soft white bulbs of cotton, this painting does little to provide reassurance for the fate of these women. Instead, in this and many of works of the era, Homer leaves the fate of the characters to find resolution in the minds of the viewer.
Oil on canvas - Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)
Exhibited to critical praise, Breezing Up (A Fair Wind) shows a working father and his three sons on a catboat in the afternoon. Similar to a modern-day snapshot, the fishing boat seems about to speed out of view, the top of its mast already cropped out of the painting. Contrasting the sense of determined movement of the small craft in the foreground, a large sailboat leisurely crosses in the far background. Like his earlier works, Homer realistically depicted the scene, without a touch of sentiment.
The stern look on the father's face as he steers the small boat is contrasted by the youthful postures of the his sons, lost in their own thoughts, not quite attuned to the pressures of the adult's world. Perhaps this subtle contrast helped make the work one of Homer's most-loved depictions.
This simple painting, which appears so quintessentially American in tone demonstrates the influence of his brief stay in France in the previous decade. The subject reflects concerns he shared with the Realist painters of France who similarly put the working figures in the immediate foreground of the composition. There is also a shift in Homer's gestural brushstrokes, which became increasingly confident after his trip to Paris, most notably in the sky and the sea. Finally, the compositional structure reveals a debt to the lessons of Japonism - the juxtaposition of extremely close-up objects against those in the deep background are seen from a slightly elevated position. In both style and subject, Breezing Up anticipates themes that will resurface and dominate his oeuvre after his second trip to Europe in 1881.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Mending the Nets
Homer often turned to watercolor when he traveled, including during the period he spent in the fishing village of Cullercoats, England. Originally titled, "Far Away from Billingsgate," this watercolor was later renamed Mending the Nets, after Homer scratched away the scenery behind the two engaged in the title activity. The simplicity of the local lifestyle appealed to his interest and gave him a new selection of genre scenes loosely related to his increasing interest in marine scenes. The high level of detail in the work, especially in the figures' hair and the fishing net, evidences Homer's great skill with the difficult medium. The women wear tattered clothes and are focused on their work, a sharp contrast to Homer's earlier compositions of genteel women often engaged in recreational activities.
It was the style, more than the subject, of Homer's English period that seems to have caught his critics off guard, with one noting in the New York Times, "They are English in method and style. One needs to read the signed named before believing that the maker of those British watercolors is the same who used to rouse the wrath or admiration of the critics by his quaint conceits, his bald oddities, his lovely transcripts of scenes that only he knew how to depict." The historian Nicolas Cikovsky credits the sparsity of style "in order to achieve the effect of figures against a plain, unlocalized background" to the influence of Ancient Greek relief sculpture, crediting this newfound sense of compositional space to the metopes of friezes of the fragments of the Parthenon (also known as the "Elgin Marbles") Homer would have seen at British Museum in London.
Watercolor and gouache over graphite - National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
In this painting, the influence of Japanese prints, first seen on his Paris trip in 1876, manifests.
Homer's largest canvas, Fox Hunt is a strong example of the subjects the artist focused on in the 1890s as he largely turned away from depictions of men and women working in and interacting with nature. Instead, the artist focused on representing the natural world exclusively. Here, he has painted a dramatic winter scene with a starved fox attempting to survive an attack by a murder of hungry crows. The crows loom large overhead while the fox is shown mid-stride, although clearly slowed by the deep winter snow - the whole lending the canvas a sense of sublime urgency. The traditional roles are reversed in this scene, for the fox who usually hunts here becomes the hunted. The paw of the struggling creature reaches forth, pointing to the only sign of vegetation, bright red berries, a poisonous breed, starkly placed against the cold white snow. An allusion, perhaps to one anticipated outcome of this scene. However, the sharp diagonal created by the fox, matched by the artist's signature in the lower left corner, suggests a sense of motion for the animal and allows the viewer to determine the conclusion to this dramatic scene.
Like his earlier Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), the careful compositional arrangement of Fox Hunt shows Homer's debt to Japanese woodblock prints. The strong diagonal lines of the composition, the juxtaposition of objects both near and far, and the large flat areas of color are all indicative of this influence. Additionally, the unusual vantage point, slightly above and looking down, is another technique often associated with the earlier prints. Here, it effectively puts the viewers nearly in line with the hovering crows, while emphasizing the struggling fox as the primary focus of the viewer's attention. The painting was immediately successful; purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts shortly after it was completed in 1893. It was the first painting by Homer to enter a public collection.
Oil on canvas - Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Pennsylvania
Homer's visionary seascapes suggest a departure from his Realist inclinations into the Romantic territory of the sublime. Painted with the loose brushstrokes he had cultivated since the 1870s, Weatherbeaten depicts a prevalent subject of his late career: the rocky coastline of Maine on a stormy, overcast afternoon. This lonely vision of a desolate sea excites the viewer's sensibilities. Although based on the natural views of the landscape, Homer removed elements of the natural scenery in order to emphasize a sense of the eternal reach of the sea. One can imagine the sound of the waves, the smell of the salty water, the texture of the weather-beaten rocks, and the cool mists rising from the crashing waves.
Works such as these offered an anchor to an American public during a period where the effects of rapid industrialization provoked great economic change and social anxiety. In place of the urban and industrial, the viewer is captivated by the eternal cycles of the natural world. Like his predecessors associated with the Hudson River School earlier in the century, Homer removed the increasing signs of tourism to depict an image of uninhabited nature. Stripped on any non-essentials, Homer's biographer, William Howe Downes, described the impact of this painting in 1911, writing: "Reality is made more real; we are acutely alive when brought into its presence. Our horizons expand...we take deeper breaths."
Oil on canvas - Portland Museum of Art, Maine