25 June 2016

Winslow Homer at the Arkell: Intertidal Life

"Spare me any more small museums,"  said the critic.

"No one ever tells you how many bad pictures there are in the Uffizi,"  said the painter.

What Winslow Homer would make of the recent renovation and resulting rehang of his seascapes at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts is just speculation but the cramped quarters and low ceilings, the placement of the paintings just inside the new museum entrance where visitors almost fall over them and each other could hardly come close to what Homer would have wished.
Winslow Homer had a lot to say about the how his paintings should be presented. To look at his landscapes from too close up or in too small a space would be "brutal."  To his dealer Knoedler & Company, Homer wrote in 1904 that the proper vantage point for viewing his seascapes was "to look at and not to smell of."  What these comments point to is the artist's vantage point when he  painted these pictures - a perch at least fifty feet away from the shore line.  At the level of a brushstroke all art dissolves into abstraction; that is one of the wondrous characteristics of verisimilitude.  Homer's comments signaled that he understood this principle and his paintings are the demonstration of an artist who has been decribed as having one foot in 19th century romanticism. and the other in 20th century modernism.   Kenyon Cox, Homer's contemporary and an art critic for the New York Evening Post, recognized that what others saw as a "lack of refinement in the treatment of details" was Homer's way of getting the viewer to back away from the canvas.

Any attempt to understand what, exactly,  Homer was up to when he painted his landscapes - I'm thinking particularly of his seascapes  - might be  called After the Fox.  Homer's 1893 painting Fox Hunt struck both his contemporaries and later critics as the artist's personal avatar, a small, shrewd creature searching for nourishment while predators circle, a great deal of symbolism to heap on a small animal searching for food beneath the snow as hungry crows hover overhead.
Winslow Homer (1836-1912) spent his early working years during the Civil War as a lithographer for the commercial press in Boston and New York; his etching A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, published in Harper's Weekly in 1862, was a compelling image that sparked a debate about a new gun technology in terms that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the current debate about the uses of drones in warfare.
When Homer turned to paining turned to painting his early successes like The Life Line (1884) and Undertow (1886) subordinated landscape to human drama as their titles imply.  But the idea that only his  late paintings show humans as spectators to the drama of the ever moving seas is not the last word and is nicely complemented by the Winslow Homer paintings at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, a village on the Erie Canal west of Albany, New York.
On the Beach, the earliest of these works was probably painted somewhere on the north shore of Massachusetts, where Homer had migrated after his first trip abroad (to Paris) in 1866.  Children, wading along the edge of the ocean, always brought out the artist's fellow-feeling; we sense their individual personalities ever at a distance.  In Moonlight, one of Homer's most tranquil seascapes, the waves break gently, registering as background to the dramatic scudding of clouds backlit in the nigth sky.  It seems to me that Watching the Breakers. A High Seas distills Homer's evolving vision of the human relationship to the sea:  we stand still, captured in the moment, regarding the ceaseless movement of forces that awe us with their intimations of the ultimate unknowable.nature of existemce.
The museum, although not large by some standards, is home to an extraordinary collection of American paintings by the likes of  William Merritt Chase, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam,  Robert Henri, Maurice Prendergast, and a painter rather similar to Homer, George Inness, whose pictures are also seen at their best from a certain distance.  In turn, the collection owes its existence to an extraordinary person, Bartlett Arkell (1862-1946) who made a fortune through his food packing company, and particularly his patent for  a vacuum  jar that made possible Beech-Nut Baby Food.

Revised: 06/27/2016

For further reading:
Winslow Homer   by Lloyd Goodrich,  Macmillan Publishers for Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC: 1036.
Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine, Paul Denenberg, editor, Yale University Press, New Haven: 2012.
1. Winslow Homer - On the Beach, c.1869, Arkell Museum, Canajoharie.
2. Winslow Homer - Moonlight, 1874, Arkell Museum, Canajoharie.
3. Winslow Homer - Watching the Breakers. A High Sea, 1896, Arkell Museum, Canajoharie.


Anonymous said...

Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine was written by Thomas Andrew Denenberg for the Portland Museum of Art, not the attribution you gave.

Jane said...

Thanks for the information. I have corrected the attribution & I am grateful you took the time to point this out. By the way, I've often wondered why people choose to be anonymous.