For most artists the search for inspiration is ceaseless. Many find the spark needed for a genuine breakthrough in a particular place or setting. It is hard to imagine Gauguin's greatest paintings without the island of Tahiti or Monet's water lilies without his garden at Giverny. So too with Winslow Homer (1836-1910), Midcareer, faced with adverse criticism and a shifting art market, he found a way forward during two summers that he spent at Houghton Farm, in Orange County, New York, in 1878 and 1879. The artwork created there was the subject of a fall exhibition shown at Syracuse University, in Syracuse, New York, and at Palitz Gallery, in New York City. The show was organized by Syracuse University and curated by the eminent Homer scholar David Tatham.
It may be that the art of Winslow Homer constitutes the most distinctively American vision of any 19th-century artist. His was a pictorial language that developed from the rough-and-tumble commercial world of the young country rather than from the refined academic traditions of his European contemporaries. To understand Homer's achievement at Houghton Farm, it is worth going back and considering where he had arrived in his career by the late 1870s and why he felt pressured to make changes to his approach.
Raised in Massachusetts, Homer spent his late teens as an apprentice to a publisher in Boston where he learned the laborious craft of a commercial artist of the day, churning out lithographs to decorate sheet music covers and the like. By his early 20s he was contributing drawings to various illustrated magazines, demonstrating considerable skill in marshalling figures and movement to convey scenes that would charm and interest a general audience.
After moving to New York in 1859, he was employed by Harpers Magazine to cover the Civil War and spent more than a year with the Army of the Potomac where he honed his skills of visual reportage. The technique at the time involved drawing directly on a wooden block, which was then cut by skilled craftsmen so that the image could be printed. In a further stage the block was rendered in metal in order to survive the large print runs that the magazines required. To make this process work it was highly important that the artist draw with economy and graphic clarity--qualities that would stand Homer in good stead throughout his career. The quality of his work can be seen in The Army of the Potomac--A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, in which the craft of the sniper is coolly described, his rifle resting on a branch and his posture conveyed as highly focused and attentive.
Following the Civil War, Homer pursued his ambition of becoming a painter. His only formal art training had come from a few drawing classes at the National Academy of Design, in New York City, and a brief period of study with French painter Frederic Rondel. However, his skills were sufficient to garner him critical acclaim for Prisoners From the Front, [not shown] a war image that struck a considerable chord with the public at the time. Homer was obliged to continue his commercial work to make ends meet but was sufficiently well funded to make a 10-month stay in Paris in 1867 and 1868. There his representational skills found welcome reinforcement amidst a prevailing taste for realism in mid-19th-century France. Millet and the Barbizon school were in ascendance at the time, and their focus on the life of common people influenced the paintings that Homer completed during his stay.
After returning to America, Homer produced paintings of leisurely outings at resorts on the Jersey Shore or in the White Mountains and candid pictures of farm life that often featured children. His famous painting Snap the Whip [not shown] comes from this period and shows a set of country children playing a lively game in front of a simple one-room schoolhouse. The straightforward celebration of the common joys of life in Homer's work was seen as generally conveying the nation's sense of optimism following the Civil War. On the whole it was well received. However, by the mid-1870s new ideas were beginning to arrive from Europe, which called his whole enterprise into question. The recent opening up of Japan had led to Japonism with an accompanying interest in the decorative and the artificial, which gave rise to the Aesthetic Movement. Also underway at the time were the first stirrings of Impressionism.
Although these new ideas found their way only slowly across the Atlantic, it is clear that by 1875, when Homer showed watercolors of farm life at the annual exhibition of the National Academy, he was beginning to appear out of step. Henry James, writing for The Galaxy magazine, was highly critical of Homer. "We frankly confess that we detest his subjects," James wrote. "He has chosen the least pictorial features of the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial, as if they were every inch as good as Capri or Tangiers." Later in the review, James wrote that one of the pictures was a "very honest, and vivid, and manly piece of work. Our only complaint with it is that it is damnably ugly." The nub of James' criticism was clearly that Homer's work lacked the more sophisticated aesthetic qualities of European art. James also complained that it lacked any sort of literary program, implying that it did not make reference to the enormous store of shared imagery that European art had amassed over the centuries.
In the face of such criticism and feeling the presence of a new generation of European trained and inspired artists competing for patronage in New York, Winslow Homer retreated to Houghton Farm for the summers of 1878 and 1879 to experiment. For the artist, the place must have represented something of a sanctuary. It was owned by Lawson Valentine, a childhood friend of the Homer family, who had become wealthy in the commercial paint and varnish business. Homer's brother had become a partner in his firm, and certainly a warm and supportive family atmosphere prevailed. Houghton Farm was situated just a few miles from the Hudson River near West Point and was being developed by its owner as an agricultural research station, one of the first of its kind in the United States. It was also a gracious family home whose members could provide just the sort of atmosphere of cultured industry that the artist needed.
Homer's work at Houghton Farm is distinguished by the emergence of three new qualities. First, there is an increased simplicity of design, particularly in backgrounds and settings. Second, the best of the paintings have a greater sense of atmosphere than his previous work, a more delicate and poetic quality that greatly extends the range of Homer's expression. Third, there is a more pronounced imaginative element in some of the pictures, a willful manipulation of imagery, which embraces to some extent the literary and aesthetic traditions of European art. In other words, the artist moved away somewhat from the very direct realism of his earlier artwork and involved himself in a more creative and transformative approach.
This change is clearly visible if we look at the earlier work The Tent (Summer by the Sea), which was completed in 1874. In this piece we are presented with one of those pleasurable resort images that Homer found a market for at that time. A large open tent provides shelter for a mother and her children on a pleasant grassy stretch by the ocean. In the background the presence of sailboats and a blue sky promise a day of fresh air and quiet bliss. But the feel of the painting is rather stolid. The outlines, for all their skillful delineation of the taut curves of the tent and the seated mother sewing in her chair, have a somewhat journeyman quality that cannot really be described as elegant. And the design of the composition, although bold and dear, is also extremely static, with rather predictable intervals and a somewhat awkward placement of the apex of the tent so close to the top of the painting. Compare this work to one of the Houghton Farm drawings, Two Children in a Field. Here, two children lie on a grassy bank, silhouetted by a vast white cloud in the sky. Their poses are languid and thoughtful as they share the long idyll of a childhood afternoon. And the very qualities of the line, its fluidity and economy, endow the drawing with a kind of stylishness that is completely missing in the earlier piece.
Part of the magic of Houghton Farm for Homer was the presence of child models, namely a boy and girl from a local family, the Babcocks. The family were squatters living high up on the slopes of Schunnemunk Mountain, a 1,664-foot peak to the west of the farm. Homer painted them often, together or separately, wearing their simple country clothes. Occasionally, in the case of the girl, the artist showed her wearing a more elaborate, even fanciful shepherdess costume of a type more usually found in a theatrical production than on a common farm. By the introduction of this simple prop the artist was able to shift the sense of some of his pictures to a more literary realm harking back to European pastoral imagery. In the watercolor Scene at Houghton Farm, for instance, we find the two children once again sharing an idyllic afternoon. The boy is dressed in common clothes, but the girl is wearing the more elaborate headdress of the shepherdess outfit. Behind them a mass of delicately painted foliage screens a distant view of meadows and mountain. The exquisite quality of the line and touch are reinforced by a subtle tonality that infuses the whole picture with a wistful and romantic atmosphere reminiscent in some ways of certain paintings of the French Rococo.
The increasing fluidity and economy of Homer's line is visible even in the very casual sketch Girls at a Well. Here, two farm children, wearing the common summer head covering, are pulling up a bucket from a well equipped with a beam for a counterbalance. The swiftly placed line, with its many gaps and openings, is leagues away from the almost ploddingly earnest renderings that Homer learned to make as a young commercial artist.
This newfound freedom in drawing may also have been helped when Homer joined the Tile Club, in New York City. This group of artists--which included Thomas Moran, William Merritt Chase, and others--met weekly when each painted a tile. One of Homer's contributions, A Littoral Tile, shows him using a very simplified set of shapes, freely brushed onto the tile, to conjure up a romantic seaside scene.
Perhaps the most exquisite moment in the new direction of Homer's work comes in the watercolor Shepherdesses Resting. Here two girls are shown in costumes that seem sophisticated rather than rustic as they lie and chat on a hillside. On the skyline another shepherdess waves a crook to announce her arrival with a flock of sheep. Above, a vast sky opens up with expanses of blue and cumulus. The line work in this piece is both sensitive and elegant to the point of being stylish. This feeling is reinforced by the restrained and tasteful color with its soft touches of grays and pinks against the dull greens of the meadow and the transparencies of the sky. Here Homer has entered an imaginative realm that seems to owe something to the European history of Arcadian imagery but that remains curiously American.
Homer's later work never quite reached this position again. He visited England in 1880, where he was impressed with the hard life of the fishing community on the North East coast. He went on to spend much of the rest of his life in Maine, where he made his famous paintings of fishermen and his powerful late images of sea-swept rocks. He never fully embraced Aestheticism or Impressionism, and his painting style throughout remained essentially realist with an ever-increasing economy, clarity of design, and monumentality. But a measure of the poetry and elegance he found in his time at Houghton Farm makes its presence felt in all the work that followed. Two watercolors in the exhibition make this clear. In Casting "A Rise", the suggestive understatement of both line and color is balanced by a subtle tonality to create a wistful and haunting scene. And in Paddling at Dusk, the artist uses an almost flagrant handling of flowing washes and boldly painted waves as a counterpoint to a tenderly rendered figure in a canoe. The poignancy of the image is given added power by this variety of handling. What Homer really learned at Houghton Farm were the transformative properties of art, how inventive use of materials, expressive line, radical editing, and making reference to shared cultural imagery can combine to elevate a work to a wholly new plane. He never looked back.
John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by Allan Stone Gallery, in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and is a frequent contributor to American Artist, Drawing, Watercolor, and Workshop magazines.
Parks, John A. "Imagination, atmosphere, & design: Winslow Homer at Houghton Farm: a recent exhibition showed that when he reached a creative crossroads, the great American artist achieved new heights in sketching and painting." American Artist Jan. 2010: 18+. General OneFile. Web. 13 Dec. 2009.
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