Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

for lodges, lean-tos, docks, boats, and other amenities for visitors), constituted a kind of paradise on earth. The stereotypical resident of this paradise--the Adam in this Empire State Eden-- was the trapper-hunter-woodsman who guided his charges (if they were lucky) to a cleansed spirit and something akin to an atavistic return to the conditions of the American pioneer. Guides were the envy of those who were wearied by the daily round of modern life.

While Homer surely comprehended this role of the guide as arbiter between the life of the woods and the life of urban culture, he did not paint it. He chose instead to portray the woodsman in his putative natural setting, uncorrupted by the commerce of serving sportsmen. This was something of an invention, of course, since except for occasional fellow sportsmen, all the male figures Homer painted in the Adirondacks were guides in the employ of hotels or his club. But this was also pictorial journalism of the highest kind. It invested an already stereotypical person with a greater strength of character and poetic feeling than had any of the Adirondack writers.

The guide Homer conceptualized in paint would not often have been found in the field. The men of the woods Homer knew and who posed for him were as varied a lot as the men of the cities who hired them. Consider Michael Flynn. He has been known to the world for a century through Homer's powerful images of him as a hunter, fisherman, and boatman, but he was rarely any of these things in the course of his life, and then only incidentally so. A different story is told by a later image of him, a photograph taken in 1943 at North Creek, a few miles from Minerva. Dressed in the same fashion as city men-- he might be taken for a museum director--he holds a grandson in his arms against a background of white pines and fields, with mountains rising in the distance. The roadway running close behind this road builder speaks of the new ease of access to the great Adirondack wilderness and of the steady encroachment upon it of the ways of urban life. An age had opened when men and women would travel to the Adirondacks on their own, and guide themselves to its wonders, in many cases seeking to see, and finding, what Homer had shown them. But what Homer had shown was both more and less than what he had seen. He not only selected his subjects, but he also developed them into something beyond a record of a moment's vision. He sought a greater, more universal and abiding truth about the Adirondacks and Adirondack people and his success in attaining this has for more than a century been one of the glories of American art.


NOTES

From The American Art Journal, vol. 22, no. 4. Reprinted by permission of the author.

I thank Mary Flynn Jenkins, Elizabeth Flynn Filkins, Rose Flynn Brown, and Patrick Flynn, all children of Michael Flynn, for their generous assistance in the preparation of this article.

1.
Homer painted this subject twice, but it is unclear which is the original and which is the near-replica. The other version, Adirondack Lake (Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle) is larger, 24 x 38". Both are dated 1870 on the canvas by Homer. Other than size, the sole significant difference is in the positioning of the jack light in the boat. In the Colby version it is upright; in the Henry version it lies in the boat. An oil lamp with a metal reflector, the jack light was positioned high on the bow of a boat and used at night to hunt deer. It illuminated and mesmerized animals who came to the water's edge but left the boatman and hunter in darkness. It is some measure of Homer's regard for his Trapper that he chose to exhibit one of the versions at the Century Association in New York in April, 1871, where it was described, undoubtedly by someone other than the artist, in the Century

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