by PETER SCHJELDAHL
Winslow Homer at the National Gallery
Winslow Homer’s first oil painting, which he made in 1863, when he was a twenty-six-year-old freelancer illustrating Civil War scenes for Harper’s Weekly, shows a Union sharpshooter in a tree, balancing a rifle for an imminent shot. The man’s perch is precarious. His concentration is total. Nature—soft tufts of dusky foliage, scraps of yellowish sky—attends indifferently. Decades later, Homer recalled having peered at a man through the telescopic sight of a sharpshooter’s weapon. The impression, he wrote in a letter, “struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service.” This compunction, which I encountered in a text accompanying an engraving of the same subject in a current show at the National Gallery, in Washington, D.C., of about fifty Homers from the museum’s collection, surprises me not for its content but because I don’t think of the extraordinarily stolid Homer as having opinions. (The sole quote from him that sticks in my mind is a bit of advice to seascape painters: “Never put more than two waves in a picture; it’s fussy.” Somehow, words to live by.) Certainly, nothing like horror inflects “The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty,” which mainly conveys professional competence. The soldier, with one booted foot athletically braced in a crook of the tree and the other dangling, and grasping a branch on which his gun rests, is all business. The engraved version differs from the painting in one extra detail—a canteen hanging in the tree, indicating a lengthy stay for the sniper at his post. By excluding the canteen, the beginner painter demonstrated an instinct for the difference between reportage and art, even as he maintained an emotional detachment, basic to reporting, that would distinguish him as a great and, particularly, an American artist—ever the undistracted sharpshooter.
Homer keeps getting better, as I’ve had repeated occasions to notice since responding ambivalently to a major travelling retrospective that opened at the National Gallery in 1995. I was in the right bad mood, at the time, to tax the artist with a spiritual tedium of Victorian-era Yankee culture, which he served doggedly with genre pictures ranging from homesick soldiers to ladies playing croquet to slickered fishermen braving squalls. Partly, I was reacting against publicity for the show which characterized Homer as “America’s greatest and most national painter,” and not only because it dismissed Jackson Pollock. A Midwesterner myself, I questioned the “national” bona fides of visions of native nature confined to the Atlantic coast and the Adirondacks. And then there was Homer’s sexlessness. Undoubtedly heterosexual, he was a washout at romance—no amorous Walt Whitman or even the intriguingly neurotic Thomas Eakins but “a quiet little fellow,” in the words of a friend—numb to personal magnetism, female or male, and with a pronounced distaste for bodies except in action. In my judgment of the retrospective, I did make exceptions for Homer’s watercolors, whose translucency coaxed fully sensuous expressiveness from him, and for some late paintings of crashing waves that with their exactly measured, explosive force outdo Friedrich, Courbet, and even Turner. But I was perversely clenched against enjoying the key aspect of Homer’s talent, which is based in his early discipline as an illustrator: a prehensile feel for the iconic—the identification of a subject with its representation, such that, in memory, one becomes inseparable from the other. My punishment, ever since, has been to undergo shocks of chastened veneration whenever I happen upon his masterpieces.
Homer was born in Boston in 1836, the middle son of a hardware merchant who, in 1849, went bust in the gold rush. At the age of eighteen, Homer was apprenticed at a lithography shop. Thereafter, he freelanced while studying art in schools and on his own. In 1860, acquiring a copy of the French scientist M. E. Chevreul’s “Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors” (an analysis of how color interacts in the eye), Homer grounded his practice in modernizing theories that were shared by the French Impressionists—who seem not to have influenced him directly. (Much of his work retains a uniquely up-to-date air.) Living on Washington Square, he had many friends and supporters, though only modest public success. He complained, throughout his career, of being misunderstood. He visited Europe and spent the better part of two years in an English fishing village. In 1884, he settled in Prout’s Neck, on the Maine coast, where he gloried in having “no other man or woman within half a mile” and took little note of his growing fame. He lived there, often wintering in Florida, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean, until his death, in 1910.
The National Gallery owns three major Homers: “Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)” (1873-76), “Hound and Hunter” (1892), and “Right and Left” (1909). The first shows a fishing sailboat, with a man and three boys aboard, atilt in a stiff breeze. It is pitched at a receding angle, rising to the left, which Homer liked for boat pictures, including his epic of maritime disaster, “The Gulf Stream” (1899). The marvel of it lies in a tonal modulation of strong color: a luminous blue, white-clouded sky silhouettes the boat and its figures, whose shadowed hues smolder. The contrast nails North Atlantic light, which is bright and clear but frail. The effect has a chill in it, and a tang. Anecdotal details of the scene, such as the boys’ delighted postures and the gleam of fish in the hold, make specific a timeless experience. There is a sense of something never properly painted before which now needn’t be painted again—a dramatic quality that distinguishes Homer from the Impressionists, who neutralized subject matter.
Homer’s storytelling put him on the losing side of modern art. Alfred Stieglitz denigrated his work, though with an odd note of respect, as “nothing more than the highest type of Illustration.” (Henry James found Homer “almost barbarously simple, and, to our eye, he is horribly ugly; but there is nevertheless something one likes about him,” proving that you cannot stay mad at this artist.) Homer is improving at present because the banishment of illustration from canonical modern painting, after Manet, has worn out. We like stories, and important painting of the past forty years, from Gerhard Richter to John Currin, has become ever more illustrative, and enamored of the one-off image.
The hunting tales in “Hound and Hunter” and “Right and Left” must be taken on faith, because one is so strange and the other is impossible. In the first, a young man in a canoe on a darkling forest lake clings to an antler of a submerged, dead deer while looking at his swimming dog. (In a technique called “hounding,” dogs chased game into water to be shot, clubbed, or drowned.) In the second—one of Homer’s last works—two foreground ducks taking off from turbulent waters are hit by a distant hunter’s double-barrelled buckshot; one has flipped upside down, and the other is transfixed with neck straining and wings spread, startled by death. The birds are black-and-white, the water several shades of gray with a splash of light blue. A tiny lick of red-orange locates the hunter’s gun, and a duck’s staring eye has a yellow iris. A ragged cream-colored band along the top of the painting suggests dawn. The picture’s muted color harmonies are worthy of Whistler, and the boldly and tenderly worked paint surface evokes Manet. A career that began with a dispassionate shooter draws to an end with unresentful shot ducks. Homer’s America, always energetic, is never so calm as when it is violent, in extreme instances of the one moral quality that overmastered, for him, all others: unsimple truth.