Winslow Homer, American Artist: His World and His Work

By Albert Ten Eyck Gardner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
HOMER'S MASTERPIECES

"Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing. All great actions have been simple, and all great pictures are."

EMERSON, Art

IN ORDER to get some idea of the tremendous impact made by Homer's paintings when they were first exhibited, one should examine the illustrations in the exhibition catalogues of the time, or consider some of the paintings chosen to illustrate the books on American painting that were published in the 1890's and just after the turn of the century. It is only then that one can begin to realize how stark and imposing, how strong and unconventional, how individual and impressive Homer's pictures must have appeared. To a generation of art lovers and critics whose tastes had been nurtured on the sweet confections imported from Düsseldorf or Paris, or on the careful nature morte landscapes of minor Hudson River painters and the peppermint patties turned out by Will Low and his bohemian friends in the Society of American Artists, Homer's pictures must have seemed like the work of a rude barbarian. To the tender-minded Homer's works appeared gross, brutal, austere, unfinished, if not downright ugly -- just the way Manet appeared to his critics in the 1860's. Homer's pictures by contrast now allow us to realize to the full the bland banality, the true vulgarity of the work of many of his contemporaries. Yet many of these men were at the time considered to be among the leading American artists, the masters, the genuises of the day, the ornaments of their profession.

During his lifetime Homer was subjected to a certain amount of critical balderdash from the reviewers of exhibitions and the writers of essays and books on American art. These naturally never had the slightest effect upon the artist, and he serenely pursued his self-set course oblivious to the cries of pain or outrage that his pictures drew from those who demanded nothing from painters but multiplied saccharinities. Though Homer ignored the criticisms of professional reviewers and art critics, he listened with attention to the terse comments about his marine pictures from Grand Banks fishermen or from the local lobstermen around Prouts Neck -- they knew what they were talking about and their perception of his paintings was not obscured by any aesthetic fogs. To Homer a painting was a means of communicating an idea and for him a painting was a failure when the viewer did not understand the meaning of his picture. He was concerned only secondarily with the aesthetic means by which this communication was accomplished -- these were solely the concern of the artist and should properly be hidden.

An old-fashioned critic who concealed himself under a pen name, "Outremer," published a long tirade on the American art exhibition at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1878 (in The Aldine, Vol. IX). Practically everything about the show outraged him. He complains that the jury of selection consisted of only one man. He didn't like the paintings by Vedder -- "bad in drawing, in composition and in color"; work by his favorite artist Frederick E. Church was "skyed"; "two of the worst painted

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