Winslow Homer, American Artist: His World and His Work

By Albert Ten Eyck Gardner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER NINE
SUMMING UP

"A taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors where there is no house and no housekeeper."

THOREAU, Walden

WINSLOW HOMER has achieved the kind of lasting fame that few other American artists of the nineteenth century have won. Interest in his work has not slackened in the years since his death. In fact during this usually critical period, when the reputations of most artists sink rapidly into the backwaters of biographical dictionaries, the reputation of Homer seems to have always been on the increase. He has managed to maintain a high reputation among critics and art historians, and public enthusiasm for his work has remained lively. Perhaps this is the real test of Homer's powers as a painter -- that he continues to hold and attract the favorable attention of several disparate generations of admirers and enthusiasts. It is a test, one might say, that Homer has passed with flying colors.

In his later years Homer made an almost complete withdrawal from casual social contacts. To many people it seemed inexcusable that "the greatest American painter" should prefer to devote himself exclusively to painting, hunting, fishing, and gardening; to the basic essentials of life as he saw it. He had no time for importunate visitors, notoriety seekers or professional art lovers, he never wanted to teach young ladies to paint, and he refused to co-operate with lion hunters and social climbers. In this he was not necessarily anti-social, he merely loved his privacy more than their company.

In a magazine article Kenyon Cox wrote of Homer: "He was always making the most unexpected observations and painting things that were not only unpainted till then, but, apparently unseen by anyone else." Certainly the kind of thing seen and painted by Homer was quite unseen by many American painters, including Kenyon Cox himself, but on the other hand the kind of thing that Homer saw and painted was not overlooked entirely by such American artists as Mary Cassatt, or even Whistler; French artists like Manet, Degas, Van Gogh, and Gauguin all had this special ability of seeing; and of course countless Japanese print makers and thousands of oriental artists before them all had this mysterious gift of being able to see things generally unseen and the skill to paint them with vitality and individual style.

Some people have been disturbed by Homer's common-sense commercial attitude toward his work. He very rightly considered his pictures as valuable products, made with all the painstaking care that a conscientious and well-trained artist naturally puts into his work; this is what the artist sells -- the product of his art. To Homer the making and selling of a picture were a part of the everyday business of earning a living; it was not considered by him as a mysterious aesthetic experience. When his pictures didn't sell, Homer felt himself to be an unsuccessful businessman, but it is impossible to imagine him thinking of himself as a misunderstod genius. Near the end of his life this commercial attitude toward his work became more and more pronounced until it verged on an exclusive

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