Winslow Homer Is an American Original

Article excerpt

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has mounted a splendid retrospective of one of America's greatest painters - including a vivid display of his unique skill as a watercolorist.

Winslow Homer is familiar images of 19th-century American life: boys playing in front of a rustic red schoolhouse or sailing on a misty bay, for example, and hunters alone with their dogs in the wilds of the Adirondack Mountains.

But a magnificent retrospective of Homer's works, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until Jan. 28, reminds us that this great painter also excelled at watercolors - a medium in which few can match him. The exhibition of 250 works, slated to travel to Boston and New York, also shows that Homer brought a craftsmanship and an intensity to his work equalled by few other artists.

Homer painted Americans at work and play: school-children at their sums and young women practicing croquet. He was one of the first American artists to depict the daily life of American blacks, rendering them in paintings such as The Carnival - an 1877 work capturing a man preparing his Harlequin costume - and The Cotton Pickers.

His extraordinary watercolors - the best of them done on visits to the Bahamas and on trips to his beloved Adirondacks - take as their subjects lush tropical light, vivid mountain sunsets, and fish and deer in the wild.

Homer was born in Boston in 1836 and died in 1910 at his home at Prout's Neck on the rugged Maine coast, the subject of many of his later paintings. As a young man, he apprenticed in a lithography shop, then freelanced as an illustrator for magazines such as Harper's Weekly. By age 30, he was already famous, in large part for his paintings arid illustrations of the Civil War, which he witnessed firsthand. One of his most powerful early works is Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, an 1863 oil showing a lone Union soldier perched in a tree.

Early critics rightly dubbed him "an American original." Homer did travel in France and England, where he spent nearly two years. But unlike other American artists of his generation who aped European styles and schools of art, Homer refined his own vision, though he certainly was influenced by painters such as realist Gustave Courbet. American critic Sadakichi Hartman, writing in 1900, surely had Homer in mind when he urged American painters and photographers "to give art the complexion of our time, boldly to express the actual. …