Man and Nature: The Art of Winslow Homer

By Brock, Charles | USA TODAY, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Man and Nature: The Art of Winslow Homer


Brock, Charles, USA TODAY


WINSLOW HOMER first received critical recognition for his insightful portrayal of the Civil War. Nationally acclaimed as an illustrator and painter by the age of 30, he began to work regularly in watercolor as well as oil in the early 1870s, creating classic images of American life. Later in his career, he rendered the coast of Maine, at Prout's Neck, in a series of dramatic seascapes that profoundly influenced such early-20th-century American artists as George Bellows and Edward Hopper. Homer belongs to the generation of modernists that includes James McNeill Whistler and the French masters Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Claude Monet. Like his European counterparts, he depicted contemporary life and was fascinated with how the play of outdoor light in nature affects color and form.

Born in Boston, Mass., in 1836, Homer spent his childhood in the then rural suburb of Cambridge. As a young man, he was apprenticed to a commercial lithographer for two years before becoming a freelance illustrator in 1857. Homer soon became a major contributor of wood engravings to popular magazines such as Harper's Weekly. In 1859, he moved to New York to be closer to the publishers who commissioned his illustrations, his main source of income, and to pursue his ambitions as a painter. He rented a studio, attended life classes at the National Academy of Design, and immersed himself in the artistic life of the city.

The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 altered the course of Homer's career. Late in the year, his family made plans to help send him to Europe to complete his artistic education. By then, though, Homer already had been to the front and fully was committed to his job as a war artist for Harper's. His first important painting of the conflict, "Sharpshooter," revealed his immediate understanding of the war's essential modernity. Unlike conventional battle pictures, which, as a contemporary described them, depicted "long lines led on by generals in cocked hats," Homer showed a solitary figure who, because of new rifle technology, was able to fire at a distance and in isolation from his target. Homer's paintings of the war were profoundly democratic in character. Scenes of camp life during the calm interludes between battles sympathetically illuminated the physical and psychological plight of ordinary individual soldiers.

After the war, Homer turned to coastal and rural scenes of peacetime America. In "Long Branch, New Jersey," he surveyed the mix of social classes at this seaside resort. Homer, like his contemporaries, the French Impressionists, demonstrated an interest in fleeting effects of light and atmosphere, while revealing his skill as a keen observer of social customs. Many of his paintings show modern women - active, independent, and self-assured-riding to the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire; swimming at Manchester, Mass.; or playing the newly popular game of croquet (a contest in which women competed directly with men). Homer also explored the occupations that increasingly engaged women after the war, such as teaching school and working in factories.

In the early 1870s, the subject of childhood, an important theme in the work of American writers like Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain, also appeared in Homer's lift. In his first series of watercolors, painted at Gloucester in 1873, he depicted children sailing and rowing in the harbor or posed against the backdrop of the town's wharves. The oil paintings of children, such as "Snap the Whip," expressed the buoyant optimism and new energies released in the aftermath of the Civil War, as well as a yearning for simplicity and innocence.

About 1877, Homer returned to the South for the first time since the war and devoted a series of images to African-American life. "The Carnival" was completed after much of the black population had been returned to a condition of virtual slavery following the withdrawal of Federal troops in 1877 and the end of Reconstruction. …

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