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Archive for the ‘Winslow Homer: Making Art Making History’ Category

By John Boudreau, Communications Intern

Though Winslow Homer is today regarded as one of America’s preeminent artists, he didn’t always meet with such universal critical approval during his career. In fact, some of the paintings that are now popularly regarded as masterpieces were panned by critics when they first came out. Do you agree with the reviewers? Disagree? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

Winslow Homer, Saco Bay, 1896. Oil on canvas, 23 13/16 x 37 15/16 in. (60.5 x 96.4 cm). The Clark, 1955.5

Winslow Homer, Saco Bay, 1896. Oil on canvas, 23 13/16 x 37 15/16 in. (60.5 x 96.4 cm). The Clark, 1955.5

Saco Bay, 1896

“[I]t has strong points in its composition and good passages in its painting, but the falsity of the crimson-edged clouds, which do not stay in place and are lacking in atmosphere, destroy the harmony of the work and make it a painting that is not satisfactory. It is signed by a great painter, but it is one of his slips”—William A. Coffin, “Society of American Artists. Pictures at the 19th Annual Exhibition,” New York Sun, 31 March 1897.

Winslow Homer, West Point, Prout’s Neck, 1900. Oil on canvas, 30 1/16 x 48 1/8 in. (76.4 x 122.2 cm). The Clark, 1955.7

Winslow Homer, West Point, Prout’s Neck, 1900. Oil on canvas, 30 1/16 x 48 1/8 in. (76.4 x 122.2 cm). The Clark, 1955.7

West Point, Prout’s Neck, 1900

“…[Winslow Homer] has one good marine with stormy waves dashing against rocks [Eastern Point], but its companion [West Point, Prout’s Neck], a buff colored sea with an inch of scarlet sunset between it and a buff sky, and some rocks pounded by spray that throws itself at one point into a stiff column, is hard in its lines, without air, disagreeable and cheap in color and altogether mournful”—“Fine Arts. Society of American Artists,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 31 March 1901

Reviews are excerpted from Winslow Homer: The Clark Collection, ed. Marc Simpson (Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2013), pages 102 and 114.

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By John Boudreau, Communications Intern

Winslow Homer, An' Wal, He Up an' Kist Her,  publ. in The Courtin', 1874. Heliotype, 12.1x11.4 cm, The Clark, ND237H6.3c5

Winslow Homer, An’ Wal, He Up an’ Kist Her, publ. in The Courtin’, 1874. Heliotype, 12.1×11.4 cm, The Clark, ND237H6.3c5

As a former librarian, Lydia Ross was particularly interested in Homer’s illustrations for James Russell Lowell’s 1874 poem The Courtin’. “These silhouettes are unique in the exhibit,” she said, “which is one of the reasons why I like them.”

For Lydia, another part of the silhouette’s appeal lies in their intricacy. “ I just think they’re really beautiful,” she said. “Think how hard it would be to do those shoelaces!” Despite their precision, the advantage of the silhouettes is that they’re not overly detailed. “You understand instantly what’s going on,” Lydia said, “rather than studying all the details, like in [Homer’s] etchings.”

Lydia also appreciated Homer’s ability to convey the poem’s setting in a very subtle way. While the figures themselves are intentionally general, she feels that the accessories in the illustrations help establish the poem’s setting. “The clothing, the apple she’s peeling, the Windsor chair—it’s very New England-y,” she said.

Winslow Homer, There Sot Huldy All Alone, 'Ith No One Nigh to Hender, publ. in The Courtin', 1874. Heliotype, 11.4x9.2 cm, The Clark, ND237H6.3c2

Winslow Homer, There Sot Huldy All Alone, ‘Ith No One Nigh to Hender, publ. in The Courtin’, 1874. Heliotype, 11.4×9.2 cm, The Clark, ND237H6.3c2

But the most interesting element of these pieces for Lydia is the context in which they were produced. According to Lydia, Homer, a life-long bachelor, was likely smitten by Helena DeKay, a young artist who served as Homer’s model in the 1870s—see Portrait of Helena DeKay (1871)—before marrying another man. Although there’s little evidence to support it, it’s possible that DeKay served as a model for these illustrations as well. Through this lens, the silhouettes take on a whole new meaning. “I think he really loved her,” Lydia said. “The fact that he never got married but still made this kind of picture is another reason why I like them so much.”

For more on the possible relationship between Homer and DeKay, check out this article from Smithsonian Magazine.

Lydia Ross is a research analyst at the Clark. A trained librarian, she has worked in the past for literacy foundations and as a research librarian for consulting firms. She has been at the Clark since June of 2012.

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By John Boudreau, Communications Intern

Though Winslow Homer is today regarded as one of America’s preeminent artists, he didn’t always meet with such universal critical approval during his career. This week, we take a look at some positive reviews and comments. Do you agree with the reviewers? Disagree? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we’ll highlight some not-so-positive reviews. Stay tuned!

Winslow Homer, Undertow, 1886. Oil on canvas, 29 13/16 x 47 5/8 in. (75.7 x 121 cm). The Clark, 1955.4

Winslow Homer, Undertow, 1886. Oil on canvas, 75.7 x 121 cm. The Clark, 1955.4

Undertow, 1886

“Though not remarkable for powerful drawing nor for any especially beautiful quality of color, this picture has a force about it, an air of truth, a fine sculpturesque quality of modeling that puts it far beyond the ordinary well-done sort of work that we are bound to praise for its honesty, but which does not excite our enthusiasm. In this picture there is a breath of great art…[Homer’s] ‘Undertow,’ by its virility, its truth, its sincerity of intention, outranks every picture in the Academy exhibition.”—“Fine Arts. The Academy Exhibition—I,” The Nation 44 (14 April 1887): 327

Winslow Homer, Shepherdess of Houghton Farm, 1878. Watercolor and graphite, with additions in ink and gouache, on cream wove paper, 11 x 19 in. (27.9 x 48.3 cm). The Clark, 1955.1483

Winslow Homer, Shepherdess of Houghton Farm, 1878. Watercolor and graphite, with additions in ink and gouache, on cream wove paper, 27.9 x 48.3 cm. The Clark, 1955.1483

Shepherdess of Houghton Farm, 1878

“Mr. Homer has started and has well under way a watercolor drawing taken from the studies, which is admirably composed. In shadow on the crest of a ridge in gently rolling country lies stretched on the grass, a young girl, surrounded by her sheep. The adjoining rise, on which are a few trees, is in full sunlight, up against which the foreground figures are sharply defined”—“Fine Arts. Studio Notes,” New York Herald, 11 November 1878

“McDonald called—Said 3 Winslow Homer watercolors would be there for me to see….The Winslow Homers came—A ‘Log Jam’ excellent but $3000—A Beach Scene not finished—A pastoral scene with ‘Sheep, Pasture & a Girl 1878’–$1000—I never saw one with sheep before—It was very poetic!!!!!!! [sic]”—Sterling Clark Diary, 29 September 1942 (74)

Reviews are excerpted from Winslow Homer: The Clark Collection, ed. Marc Simpson (Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2013), pages 86 and 74.

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By John Boudreau, Communications Intern

Saved

Winslow Homer, Saved, 1889. Etching on cream wove paper, 42.8 x 76.4 cm. The Clark, 1972.16

For Julie Schwartz, the etching Saved immediately transports her back to the year she spent living on Nantucket. “On the island, your life is very governed by weather, and in the nineteenth century you can imagine how much more important it would have been,” she said.

Though Saved is not set on Nantucket, the life-saving technique Homer depicted was used on the island in the nineteenth century. “They would shoot ropes out to sinking ships with a gun,” Julie said, “then literally have a pulley that they used to haul people and goods off boats. Nantucket was one of the first ports to have several of these life-saving stations because shipwrecks were such a problem.”

The perils of the sea are a frequent theme in Homer’s paintings, and Julie suspects that it may have been a popular subject of the era. “People seemed to be very into the life-saving theme at the time, like Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa.”

Julie noted that much like the carefully posed figures in Géricault’s 1819 painting, there is a strong classical inspiration for the female form in Saved. “I feel like you can see some real parallels with the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum,” she said. “The figures are so dramatic.”

The heightened sense of drama in the etching is no accident. For his etchings, Homer generally based his composition on an earlier piece of art—in this instance The Life Line (1884)—but refocused the etching on the most dramatic moment of the painting or watercolor in a sort of nineteenth-century close-up.

Julie Schwartz is Director of Advancement Initiatives, a position she has held since March. Prior to arriving at the Clark, she spent a year on Nantucket with the Nantucket Artists’ Association and worked at Carnegie Hall. Originally from Stockbridge, Massachusetts, she says the Clark has always been her favorite museum.

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By John Boudreau, Communications Intern

When talking about Homer, it never takes very long for someone to mention Prout’s Neck. The two are linked in the popular imagination, probably for all time. It might be said that it was here, among the rocky coastline and pine trees, that Homer did his most fully realized work—paintings like Eastern Point and West Point, Prout’s Neck capture the Maine coast in a way that few other artists have been able to. They are beautiful paintings, but they’re also savage, visceral representations of the power of the sea.

Winslow Homer (American; 1836–1910); Eastern Point; 1900. Oil on canvas; 30 1/4 x 48 1/2 in. (76.8 x 123.2 cm). The Clark; 1955.6

Winslow Homer (American; 1836–1910); Eastern Point; 1900. Oil on canvas; 30 1/4 x 48 1/2 in. (76.8 x 123.2 cm). The Clark; 1955.6

Though Homer spent the final decades of his life in Maine, he wasn’t the only member of his family to reside there. His brother Arthur built a house in Prout’s Neck in 1881, and Charles Homer, Sr. bought a home there in 1883. By then, the Homer family owned most of the peninsula. Today, a large part of the peninsula is devoted to a bird sanctuary, preserving the area’s untamed beauty.

Homer’s studio was purchased by the Portland Museum of Art in 2006 and renovated to return it to its appearance circa 1910. To do that, bedrooms had to be removed from the upper floor, which had an open layout when Homer lived there, and the enlarged kitchen was reduced to its original size. The studio opened to the public for the first time in 2012, allowing visitors to not only experience the atmosphere of Homer’s studio, but also to see tangible evidence of the artist’s occupation—Homer’s notes to himself are scrawled on the walls and preserved for visitors.

Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910), West Point, Prout’s Neck, 1900. Oil on canvas, 30 1/16 x 48 1/8 in. (76.4 x 122.2 cm). The Clark, 1955.7

Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910), West Point, Prout’s Neck, 1900. Oil on canvas, 30 1/16 x 48 1/8 in. (76.4 x 122.2 cm). The Clark, 1955.7

The central feature of Homer’s studio is the second floor deck he had built in order to observe the ocean. The incredible panoramic view from the “piazza”, as he affectionately nicknamed it, may have even overwhelmed him a bit, which could be why he was once quoted as saying “never paint more than two waves in a picture; it’s fussy.”[1]

If you’re interested in exploring the relationship between Homer and Prout’s Neck a little further, Tom Denenberg, director of the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, will deliver a free lecture at the Clark entitled Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place on Sunday, August 4 at 3 pm. Denenberg, who has published two monographs on Homer, oversaw the restoration of Homer’s studio during his time as chief curator and deputy director at the Portland Museum of Art.

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By John Boudreau, Communications Intern

One of the great things about visiting Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History is that everyone who looks at Homer’s works reacts to them in a different way. They evoke different emotions, stories, and sentiments from every viewer. With Your Favorite Homer, we’ll ask some of the Clark’s employees to share their reactions to their favorite work of art in the exhibit.

Winslow Homer, An October Day, 1889. Watercolor over graphite, with scraping, on cream wove paper, 14 1/16 x 19 3/4 in. (35.7 x 50.2 cm). The Clark, 1955.770

Winslow Homer, An October Day, 1889. Watercolor over graphite, with scraping, on cream wove paper, 14 1/16 x 19 3/4 in. (35.7 x 50.2 cm). The Clark, 1955.770

For Laura Bonito, An October Day is one of Homer’s most articulate watercolors. “You first see the mixture of colors in the landscape, and then there’s the challenge of painting the water because it’s reflecting both the sky and the colors of the leaves,” she said. “It’s a very American landscape, but the mountains remind me of the mountains where my parents were born outside of Naples [Italy], so everything seems very familiar to me, but also very strange.”

It’s also a complicated piece. “If you look at the landscape you could think it’s a peaceful scene,” she said. “But it’s really very dramatic—the representation of a struggle between life and death.” The contrast between the beauty of the landscape and the tension of the action is what initially drew Laura to the watercolor. The painting’s composition, however, leaves little doubt in Laura’s mind as to which side the artist was on. “I think Homer is trying to paint from the perspective of the deer rather than the hunters,” she said.

In Laura’s opinion, “the landscape is the protagonist of the painting.” The hunter, on the left-hand side of the painting, and his dog, rendered as a few black and white spots on the right-hand shore, don’t appear to be the focus of the work, and the human element is both literally and metaphorically put in the background. Instead, the watercolor seems to be primarily a meditation on nature and mortality. “You see the same theme in John Constable’s Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds in the National Gallery in London,” she said. “It’s sort of the European example of this type of painting.”

Laura Bonito is a curatorial intern originally from Italy. She is at the Clark for the summer as a part of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ BHIP internship program, which pairs students interested in museum work with area museums. She graduated last year from the University of Pisa, and is taking the opportunity to travel and enrich her CV while working on her PhD.

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By John Boudreau, Communications Intern

1955.4453C

After Winslow Homer, Combat Between Mordaunt and Fenwick, publ. in Surry of Eagle’s-Nest c. 1866. Wood engraving on beige wove paper, sheet: 18.8 x 12.4 cm. The Clark, 1955.4453C

Homer’s career as a commercial illustrator was in full bloom when he was tasked with illustrating John Esten Cooke’s novel Surry of Eagle’s-Nest; or The Memoirs of a Staff-Officer Serving in Virginia, a gripping and romantic tale of the Civil War.

A native of Virginia, Cooke was a voracious consumer of the popular literature of his day—including works by Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, initially with the 1st Company Richmond Artillery, and later as an aid to cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart. Surry of Eagle’s-Nest draws on his war experiences as well as his taste for romantic literature, and his post-war novels strive to reconcile the gritty reality of Civil War combat with the swashbuckling chivalry of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy.

This same attempt at reconciliation is, to a certain extent, visible in Homer’s illustrations. Gone are the large-scale depictions of hectic battle sequences found in Homer’s work for Harper’s Weekly. Instead, his illustrations for Surry of Eagle’s-Nest feature sabres, plumed hats, and capes. If the caption to Gen. Jackson’s Escape were deleted, the illustration could be used in any number of Romantic war novels. These illustrations are more cavalier, in every sense of the word, than the majority of Homer’s Civil War work.

The collaboration of a New York-based artist and a Virginian novelist the year after the Treaty of Appomattox was signed shows just how swiftly some elements of reunification proceeded. However, the fact that a novel that unrepentantly glorified the Confederacy was immensely popular all over the country is in turn a testament to how slowly other aspects of reunification progressed.

1955.4453B

After Winslow Homer, Gen. Jackson’s Escape publ. in Surry of Eagle’s-Nest c. 1866. Wood engraving on beige wove paper, image: 8.9 x 12.1 cm. The Clark, 1955.4453B

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