Winslow Homer painted people, but he was not a portraitist. He painted mountains and rivers, but he was not a landscape artist. He painted activities, but he was not a genre artist. In 19th-century American art, there was no one like him. He stands alone.
He was a storyteller, but he rarely told you what the story was, or how it might end. He left that to the viewer. For the same reason, he generally did not paint faces, at least not in a way that an emotion or expression was visible. Heads were turned or hats cast shadows. The viewer was free to speculate, or even better, put himself in the subject’s shoes. This draws one into the picture, makes one think. You look a little longer at a painting by Homer than another artist. His painting style added to the ambiguity: not hyper-realistic, but not Impressionist, a bit soft and painterly.
Perhaps Homer’s early career as a magazine illustrator was responsible for the narrative quality of his works. Certainly his earliest paintings, from the Civil War, were never far from the images he was sending back to be made into prints, scenes from the front. We’ll never know what was on Homer’s mind: he famously did not write, or talk, about his work and left little record beyond his hundreds of paintings and watercolors. When asked about the meaning, or the story behind, his famous painting The Gulf Stream, the centerpiece of the recent show at the Met, he responded, “The subject of this picture is comprised in its title,” which tells you nothing, or everything.
William R. Cross has written a masterful biography called Winslow Homer: American Passage. It is hard to believe that there is any document or historical record that he didn’t uncover in his research, the culmination of his lifelong study of Homer. Yet throughout the book he writes that “Homer must have seen such-and-such” or “probably met so-and-so.” When Homer goes on a trip with another artist, Cross is able to quote letters and diaries from the other artist, never Homer. This leaves the interpretation of even Homer’s most famous works up for grabs. Which is what the Met surely did in its Crosscurrents exhibition (see related entry). Near the end of his book Cross offers his interpretation of the “competing forces that shaped [Homer]:…life and death, man and nature, free flight and its sudden end” (p. 428).
“Man and nature” is, to my mind, the best way to understand the power of what are to my mind his three masterpieces: The Herring Net (1885) at the Art Institute of Chicago; The Fog Warning (1885) at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and my favorite, Eight Bells (1886) at the Addison Gallery at Andover. All three are magisterial works, and although the men in them are large, the ocean they face is far vaster. All three depict men actively engaged in seafaring activities, but they raise as many questions as they answer. In the first two, a large sailboat is seen on the distant horizon. Is that their base to which they must return? The choppy waters seem alive with peril. And the fish are a reminder of death. Eight Bells, which I’ve seen often and heard discussed, is a simple picture that defies easy explanation. If the picture is about the title, when is it? Eight bells can refer to 8 a.m., noon, or 4 p.m., and I’ve heard arguments for each. The sailors seem safe as can be, yet Cross finds allusions to death in “the shrouds at right, flying in the wind from their spectral spars.” Is light breaking through, or are storm clouds massing? As usual, one man is seen from behind and the other with head shrouded and shadowed, offering no clues. The more we look, the more we find that we, too, are looking out at sea. The horizontals and verticals create a stability in the composition that subtly draws us in. The light reflecting off the sailors’ hats and off the waves is magical. This is a picture I can go back to, time and again, seeing more and never tiring.
Conversely, I was surprised at how many works illustrated in the biography I did not like. Where Homer shows women’s faces, particularly in his English scenes, they are bland, vacant, unattractive. Some action scenes, notably The Life Line, are too melodramatic for my taste, and I’ve already complained that the shark in The Gulf Stream looks like a cartoon character. Other works are interesting, but little more.
Any evaluation of Homer’s oeuvre, however, that doesn’t give equal weight to his watercolors is incomplete. As dark and gloomy as many of his oil paintings are, the watercolors are just as colorful, bright and happy. I haven’t the experience or expertise to offer a full analysis, and Cross’s book focuses, correctly, more on Homer’s output in oils. But based on shows I’ve seen at the Met and elsewhere, as well as books and reproductions, I have been smitten by Homer’s watercolor scenes in Bermuda, the Bahamas, Gloucester and the Adirondacks. They show less gloom, less serious import. And the faces, especially of Black men in the Caribbean, are just fine. Boys playing on a beach without a care in the world–this is a watercolor subject for Homer, not an oil. Like Maurice Prendergast, the other great American watercolorist (a rating perhaps shared with William Trost Richards), Homer is a different artist with watercolors, maybe not as profound but more stunningly beautiful.
But best of all in Cross’s book is that he has given me an easily grasped timeline of Homer’s life and work, connected that to the society around him and shown how Homer’s life bleeds into some of the most famous paintings in American art.
PS: I don’t mean to give short shrift to other iconic Homer paintings that I admire. His Civil War subjects are the only great paintings that come directly from that period. The Morning Bell, Snap the Whip and his classroom scenes are marvelous evocations of period domesticity. At the end of his life, Right and Left is a strikingly original composition (although preceded by Hiroshige) that recalls Homer’s entire output, from The Sharpshooter through the Adirondack hunting scenes to the marine masterpieces.