PRINT November 1963

Winslow Homer at Arizona

WINSLOW HOMER HAS HIS LARGEST and first important show in the West at the Art Gallery of the University of Arizona, Tucson, through December 1, 1963. Drawn from private and public collections, the show ranges from very early drawings through the Civil War paintings to the late watercolors and some of the solemn oils of the sea.

A realist much in the manner of his contemporaries Courbet and the early Manet. Homer paid strict attention to externals. Yet occasionally, and in his late period often, he went beyond externals to establish monumental power. The 140 paintings, drawings, and prints in the show span Homer’s career. He had an early interest in drawing, and by 21 was on his own as a free-lance illustrator. He covered Lincoln’s inauguration and the Civil War as illustrator-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. With the Civil War pictures his stature started to develop. If he had not gone beyond these, he would be remembered as an artist who did some interesting war canvases. These are descriptive reporting, with accent on behind-the-lines events rather than war-front stories.

Homer started using oils in 1862 during the War, and developed his technique rapidly. These early oils are pure genre. The soldier’s lot is explored in the scene of camp life, “Home Sweet Home.” In another oil, a delightful aside from war, a soldier is made to stand at attention with a stick for a gun in “Punishment for Intoxication.”

Homer’s virile realism continues in “Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg, Virginia” of 1865. From this same year is a more mature work, “Army Boots,” showing two orderlies resting in a tent. Homer demonstrates his draftsmanship in the charcoal and chalk sketch of a “Union Cavalry Officer,” a vivid, economical delineation. A quiet oil of 1865 is an expression of an inward mood rare at this period. Here the siIhouetted figure of a woman in “October Evening” sums up the slow, sad days and sapped energy of war’s end. In 1867 Homer visited Paris, but probably had no contact with the artists there who were setting the stage for the modern revolution. His “Paris Courtyard” and portrait of a “Cellist” have the dark tonality of this period. On his return to America, Homer’s descriptive powers reached new heights. The acutely realized “Snap the Whip” and “Sunday Morning in Virginia,” both in bright sunlight, are outstanding genre painting, but also show control of expressive organization. Fresh and delightful life on the water is painted in “Children on the Beach” and “Waiting for a Bite.”

Homer dramatized the watercolor medium and made it uniquely his own. He established the modern vocabulary of the medium and explored its technical limits. If later artists made more expressive use of his discoveries, he is still the master of the medium. In 1881 he visited England and started his final awareness of light, which he later researched on the Maine Coast and in southern waters. A watercolor of 1881, “Oh the Cliff,” is a tumble of light-filled movement spilling over a rock cliff to shore. On his return to the United States, Homer made a final move to Prout’s Neck, Maine, though he made a yearly pilgrimage south to Florida, Bermuda, and the Bahamas. He continued to expand his watercolor technique. Sometimes, as in a striking, bold “Bass” of 1890, he anticipates Marin in the fresh, nearly abstract use of the medium. Now his watercolors become great. They have the feel of material, vigorous design, crisp brush work, and a great response to light. “Sponge Fisherman, Bahamas” and “The Water Fan” are typical Southern subjects. From the Northern woods are two great watercolors of 1892. A “Deer Drinking, ” with sonorous tonality, and “Return from the Hunt” are culminations of his rich technique.

From now on Homer starts a grander, simpler unity in his oils. He would maintain that he was a strict recorder of nature: his late works show him to be a subtle interpreter. Homer was reticent. He let his stature emerge slowly and almost reluctantly. In the taut energy of the classic “Eight Bells” he is still reticent, and does not reveal the individuality of his figures. The tension of the figures and the reduction to essentials give this oil more impact and lasting effect than mere minute detail ever could. His late work neither rejoices nor despairs. In the “Maine Coast” of 1895 or the “Early Morning After a Storm at Sea” of 1902 the tranquil and forceful are balanced, the intricate and the general, the individual and universal merge.

Marlan Miller