Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

10
Trapper, Hunter, and Woodsman

Winslow Homer's Adirondack Figures

DAVID TATHAM

In his essay on Winslow Homer's Adirondack figures, David Tatham explores the manner by which the works of this celebrated "objective realist" consistently reveal both more and less than what the artist actually observed. Tatham's discussion is grounded in formal analysis of the paintings and careful consideration of available evidence regarding the artist's work habits, Adirondack topography, common hunting practices, and the actual identities of the woodsmen represented.

Rather than casting these men in their customary role as professional aides to vacationing sportsmen, Tatham argues that the guides, trappers, and hunters represented in Homer's Adirondack scenes are instead portrayed as rugged individualists for whom the wilderness is a natural habitat. This body of work is then linked to an evolving cultural climate shaped by late Victorian melancholy and the impact of diverse ideas, from Darwinism to aestheticism. Tatham characterizes Homer's vision of the Adirondacks as a powerful combination of accurate, gripping detail placed in the service of communicating larger truths about the meaning of the wilderness and the elemental forces of nature.

Winslow Homer ( 1836-1910) painted Adirondack subjects intermittently throughout four decades. His earliest painting of this northern wilderness dates from 1870, the year of his first visit to the region. His last is a watercolor of 1902, painted eight years before his final journey into the forest. No other place, not even Prout's Neck on the coast of Maine, held his attention for so many years. No other group of his paintings documents quite so well as those from the Adirondacks his ability to treat in an original way subjects that others seemed to have exhausted. And nowhere else in his work is it quite so clear how his thinking about the natural world and humanity's place in it moved from quiet optimism to something considerably graver.

One of his achievements in the Adirondacks was to revitalize an older American subject--the woodsman--and bring it from a status of peripheral interest in the world of art to center stage. He did this initially in 1870, in his very first Adirondack painting, The Trapper, Adirondacks [1]. 1 The Trapper, in both its figure and its setting, broke a number of the conventions that had governed the work of most of Homer's predecessors in the region. It established him as an independent voice among both those who painted this northerly wilderness and those who portrayed the men who worked in it.

Part of his painting's originality could be found in its composition. Most earlier depictions

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