There’s so much more to Winslow Homer than its spectacular seascapes

Until the invention of photography, war reporting depended on old-fashioned illustration, and even after that the illustrated press was slow to catch up. Photographic reproduction did not work on cheap newsprint, which required a sharpness of definition that old photography could not provide. Thus, reporting on the Civil War in new illustrated periodicals for the middle class continued to rely on woodcuts, and it was as a printmaker that 25-year-old Winslow Homer was sent by Harper’s Weekly to cover the battles of 1861.

Apprenticed to a commercial lithographer at the age of 19, Homer had no formal training as an artist, but he had a nose for the decisive moment that added drama to a reporter’s copy. In Virginia in 1862, with the Army of the Potomac, he fixed a Yankee sniper high in a tree, getting a distant enemy in his line of sight. While the image — captioned “Army of the Potomac – Sharpshooter on Picket Duty” — appealed to Union-supporting readers of the magazine, it made the Boston-born artist deeply unhappy. ‘easy. Thirty-two years later, he confessed in a letter that the experience of looking at a human target through a rifle sight in a Potomac peach orchard had struck him ‘as close to murder as anything what I could think of in relation to the military’. The following year he worked on his feelings on the subject in what was possibly his first oil painting.

Growing up in an established New England family, Homer struggled with a sense of right and wrong that could have stood in the way of artistic success, and from the start of his career as a painter he left its meanings open. to interpretation. With his Confederate soldier sketched against the sky, the composition of his painting ‘Defiance, Inviting a Shot before Petersburg’ (1864) has all the immediacy of Robert Capa’s famous ‘Falling Solider’, shot during the Spanish Civil War, except that ‘Homer undermines the action of his soldier. bravado in painting a black minstrel figure in the trench below accompanying his jig on a banjo – one of the first of many black subjects to appear in his paintings.

In a new biography coinciding with the Met’s Winslow Homer retrospective at the National Gallery, William R. Cross traces the artist’s interest in African-American subjects to the radicalizing effect on the citizens of Boston of the famous trial of 1854 of a runaway slave. Anthony Burns, returned to his southern owner under the Fugitive Slave Act. “We went to bed one night, old-fashioned, conservative, compromise Union Whigs,” said a solid Boston citizen, “and woke up to some absolutely crazed abolitionists.” Whatever the cause, Homer’s unusual focus on black subjects rescued him from relative obscurity as an anecdotal 19th-century American artist and catapulted him into the age of BLM.

There is no Winslow Homer in British public collections, perhaps because his outlook is too American. Unlike fellow American realist Thomas Eakins, he did not train in Paris; the only time he visited the French capital of the arts was to see two of his own Civil War paintings in the American section of the Universal Exhibition in 1867. He did not think a knowledge of art was essential to develop an artistic vision; he believed artists “should never look at pictures” but “stutter in their own language”. But no painter escapes the influence of images. Homer’s ‘The Cotton Pickers’ (1876) clearly echoes Millet’s ‘The Gleaners’, except that the cropping is closer and the women are black.

There is neither sentimentality nor condescension in Homer’s treatment of these stoic former farm laborers turned sharecroppers: he does them the honor of treating them with pragmatism. The picture sold for $1,500 to an English cotton merchant, who submitted it for exhibition at the Royal Academy two years later. This sale, for a record price for Homer, may have motivated his trip to England in 1881, but there was another more important reason. One of his patrons had recently purchased Turner’s “The Slave Ship,” and Homer, who came from a maritime background, was drawn to the sea as a dramatic subject. After visiting the British Museum and painting the Houses of Parliament, he headed northeast to the artists’ colony of Cullercoats on the Northumbrian coast, where he found new models of stoic femininity in the fishwives of Tyneside – ‘hardy, hardy creatures’ – and the heroic manliness of their sailor husbands who braved all weather in ‘The Life Brigade’ (c. 1882) saving the lives of other sailors.

Upon his return to America in 1883, Homer moved into a converted coachhouse 70 feet from the sea on the family estate in Prouts Neck, Maine, where he continued the theme of man’s battle against brackish, cultivating the not entirely convincing image of a recluse. while having lunches delivered by the nearby resort hotel. But the winters were harsh. In December 1886, he wrote to his father to regret having bought a too small stove: “It is very comfortable within ten feet… I wear rubber boots and two pairs of underpants.

His dramatic action shot of that year, ‘The Undertow’, showing two drowning women rescued by two male bathers, was actually staged on the roof of his New York studio with the niece of a friend replacing the swooning women and his brother for the muscular one. rescuers, while a younger brother sprinkled the niece with water. A longtime bachelor, Homer embraced the wet t-shirt look, but was careful to maintain ownership by having his lifeguards look the other way. “An utterly manly work,” was the verdict of a fellow artist.

Eventually tired of the cold and the rubber boots, Homer set about spending the winter in the tropics. In 1884 he traveled to the Bahamas to paint watercolor illustrations for a winter trip, and he returned there until the year of his death in 1910. His colorful watercolors of Bahamian life, with their Sun-kissed bungalows, their lush tropical gardens and handsome black fishers, look like typical tourist sights at first glance but, as always with Homer, there’s more going on. “A Garden in Nassau” (1885) with its cute little black boy gazing at a coconut tree over a sunny wall is a lovely image but a wall is a wall, sunny or not, and the coconuts are on the other side .

It was in the Bahamas that Homer drew the abandoned boat surrounded by sharks that would form the basis of his most iconic painting. Imagining a lone sailor in a dismasted boat adrift on stormy seas between a school of flying fish and a shiver of sharks, ‘The Gulf Stream’ (1899-1906) is the ultimate image of man at the mercy of nature, and man is black.

Thirty years later, Homer’s painting was hailed by Harlem Renaissance critic Alain Locke as the image that “broke the tradition of the cotton patch and the back porch” and “has began the artistic emancipation of the Negro subject in American art”. It must have been the work by which the artist wanted to be remembered because it was the only one in front of which he had photographed himself, fixing posterity with a provocative gaze over his mustache of Victorian handlebars.

Winslow Homer: Force of Nature is at the National Gallery from September 10 to January 8, 2023.

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