Winslow Homer, American Artist: His World and His Work

By Albert Ten Eyck Gardner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
HOMER IN PARIS -- 1867

"It is not worth while to be alarmed about the influence of French art. It would hardly be mortifying if a Millet or a Delacroix should be developed in Boston." WILLIAM MORRIS HUNT

IN ONE of the most exhaustive studies of the life and work of Winslow Homer -- the book by William Howe Downes -- there is an account of Homer's trip to Paris in 1867. This account contains the following statement:

He did no studying and no serious work of any kind worth mentioning while he was in Paris, and it is probable that he devoted most of his time to sightseeing and recreation . . . What he did not do while he was in France is somewhat significant. He did not enter the atelier of the most renowned French master; he did not make copies of the famous masterpieces in the Louvre; he did not go to Concarneau. or to Grez or to any of the favorite painting-grounds of the young American artists; and he did not, as far as is known, make many friends among his fellow artists.

Practically all the other writers on Homer in the past have agreed in general with this incredible statement and they have reiterated the fact that Homer's trip to Paris had no effect on his art.

In the past students of Homer's work have sought in vain for obvious traces of French influence the mark of some Parisian academy or atelier, or perhaps for the shadow of the manner of some fashionable salon painter of the day. All have decided that since little French influence of this sort is visible in his work his stay in France was without effect on his development as an artist. His wood engraving showing students copying from the old masters in the Long Gallery of the Louvre is taken as positive proof that he actually went to the Louvre, but whether he studied the masterpieces displayed there, or what he thought of them, has always been a part of the enigmatic aspects of his trip.

After some hesitation, in view of the considered opinions of the experts, I wish to propose a new theory that presents an alternative view on this interesting phase of Homer's career. It is my belief that Homer's trip to Paris was the most important event in his entire career as an artist.

Working on the old theory as propounded by Downes, we are asked to believe that a young American artist, a disciple of Ruskin, a practicing draftsman, a professional illustrator and painter, could go from the tame little provincial New York art world of 1867 to stay in Paris for almost a year, and to imagine that this sojourn in the art capital of the Western world had no effect on him as an artist. There was nothing in America to match the glamour and excitement of the Paris art world in those last hectic years of the uneasy reign of Napoleon III. The contrast of American meagerness to the extravagant opulence of Paris in 1867 must have been extraordinary, perhaps even a bit overwhelming, to the innocent American artist's eye.

-89-

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