When the kids were young we summered in the Adirondacks. We rented an unheated cabin with no insulation, no foundation and only the most basic amenities (there is a photo of part of the interior in my post on the Louvre). It did come with a couple of prints of paintings by Winslow Homer thumb tacked to the wall by the previous occupant. These prints were watercolor views of Florida and the Bahamas; subjects out of place in every way, aside from the fact that I only saw them in the summertime.
Ironically, Homer was an avid fisherman who spent summers painting in the Adirondacks. A couple of his Adirondack watercolors would have been completely in keeping with those summers long ago.
|Boy Fishing - 1892|
|The Blue Boat - 1892|
Another bit of irony was that Homer, the painter of peacetime America, got his start as a war correspondent/illustrator for some major New York City magazines during the Civil War.
A number of memorable paintings were produced from his war experiences and sketches at that time. His skill in capturing the natural attitudes and look of the citizen soldiers would become a constant throughout his long career.
|Home Sweet Home (detail) - 1863|
His paintings of the war did not depict the actual fighting, but rather the camp life, and the more personal actions that he saw while traveling with the armies.
|Defiance, Inviting a Shot before Petersburg - 1864|
In terms of Homer and the built environment, all I can say is that it was nearly always kept in the background. People were his métier, and entire buildings would have overwhelmed the human element.
|Burmuda - 1901|
Winslow Homer was born in Boston Massachusetts in 1836. He learned watercolor painting from his mother, and was apprenticed to a lithographer at age 19. At 21 he indulged his urge to be his own boss, and took on work as a freelance illustrator. He soon moved to New York City, and stayed popular and busy, illustrating for the fashionable magazines over the next 20 years. He recorded the world of 19th century America without sentimentality, but with a sure hand, and a strong sense of value and composition. Although he traveled south to cover the Civil War and spent time in Paris and England, his reputation is anchored to his views of everyday life in New England.
By 1875 his paintings were selling well enough for him to quit the illustration business. From then until his death in 1910 he painted iconic images of the America that was slowly fading away in the industrialized, urban world. He spent his time either on the coast of Maine, or on working vacations to the Caribbean, the nearby Adirondack Mountains or Canada.
Homer the artist was self taught, and although he soon established a reputation in the art exhibitions of the day, it took some time for commercial success to arrive. He was the hermit artist, preferring to work alone, and never taking on students. However, his solidly balanced color and daring composition made him a role model for artists and illustrators like Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth.
The following examples from Homer’s work are taken in chronological order.
The Whittling Boy shows a centered figure in a twisted pose. The “pin-wheel” effect of the figure contrasts with the otherwise symmetrical composition. Homer gives the highest contrast to the figure, while a medium contrast is on left and a low contrast is on the right. Brightly warm coloring is reserved for the figure, while the background is left with a mix of moderate warm and cool coloring.
Breezing Up is perhaps Homer’s most recognizable paintings; it is also an example of his daring compositional ideas. The foreground boat is dropping off the page on the left, and the greatest contrast on the sail is leading the eye off the page. This bold move is balanced by the schooner in the distance on the right and the bright red of the old man’s jacket. The primary focus ends up roughly in the lower left corner following the golden section, but the route to it is ingenious. Generally the colors follow Homer’s usual habit of cool background with a warm family of colors on the focus.
How Many Eggs is another off center composition. It is surprisingly similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s compositions (which deserves a post). Everything; contrast, color and brilliance is at the top. Some scraggly weeds and upset birds occupy the bottom and right margins.
One of Homer’’s paintings that deliberately flout the traditional compositional rules is Farmer with a Pitchfork. The figure is dead center, and the figure’s stance is nearly symmetrical. In addition the background is only slightly asymmetrical. The color balance between the bright red of the farmer’s shirt and the green field is made possible by the flecks of red modifying everything in the painting. Most interestingly, there is a subtle cloud of muted red around the farmer’s shirt and head, which makes the painting work for me.
Fisherfolk on the Beach at Cullercoats is one of Homer’s watercolors from his time in England. It is less interesting in that it is busier and more conventional than his usual compositions. The muted color suggests that he was thinking of the classical traditions of Europe. Although the composition is traditional, the most crisply delineated figure is set dead center again. It is perhaps most interesting in that it seems like a precursor of the style or art developed at the art colony in Newlyn, England in the 1880's and '90's.
One of my favorite paintings is The Fog Warning. It has it all: a pleasing, balanced composition, a nice balance of cool and warm coloring and an engaging story. It also introduces a subtle repetition of diagonal shapes in the boat, water and sky, which I like. He has also used a natural value reversal in the dark fisherman against the light sky, and the white fish against the dark boat and water. And to top it all off, it is utterly believable as a snapshot of reality.
Eight Bells has always fascinated me in that it starts from a painterly, almost abstract work in the background, and proceeds to a finely observed rendition of flesh, metal and wet storm gear. The mix of paint daubs on canvas, and realism, is always miraculous to me.
Winter Coast is a painting of Homer’s later years. It could pass for a completely abstract work of art. Only the figure and the twisted branch suggest reality. The composition snubs all the traditional rules, and the shapes seem to be slipping clear off the canvas. And yet it works.
Mink Pond always makes me think of Juan Miro. The objects seem to be randomly floating along a line across the picture plane. You first notice the white water lily, but then your eye races back and forth from fish to frog to butterfly. It is another weirdly realistic, abstract painting with a story hidden underneath.
Homer’s penchant for abstraction and visual slight-of-hand is on display in On the Trail. A glance will suggest an autumn forest scene, but the hunter and hounds at the center only come into focus slowly. What is really impressive about this painting is that it is a watercolor. Homer has done it all without allowing the result to become muddy or chaotic.
The Lookout is the first painting, which as a young child, made me want to “do that”. I think the easy reality of the bell impressed me the most. In addition it has the “off the frame” composition that suggests a movie still, and there are shy hints as to the story behind the image.
|Palm Trees, Florida - 1904|
Finally, we are back in the tropics where we began; palm trees and lucid skies. Which is appropriate, since I am writing this during a nasty blizzard. There will be snow to shovel tomorrow morning, but for now I can sit and admire Homer’s brilliant watercolor and dream of white sandy beaches and warm sun.