New York

Winslow Homer

Ira Spanierman Gallery

The Ira Spanierman Gallery on East 78th Street presents a benefit exhibition of Winslow Home paintings from the collection of Cooper Union. This institution (whose Museum Fund is the show’s beneficiary) acquired the twenty-two paintings on view in successive gifts in 1916 and 1918 by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Savage Homer. The works are all brilliant and fresh, having been the happy recipients of T.L.C. from present-day donors in the form of careful cleaning and other conservation techniques, and handsome reframing. It seems the paintings had, as a friend once observed of a famous Baltimore hostess, “reached the age when the distinction between medicine and cosmetology no longer exists.” In any event, they look wonderful, having been expertly handled.

All the paintings date from between 1867 and 1879 and show Homer’s response to a period of study in France. Providentially, he assimilated the most durable qualities of French painting of that epoch, especially the new and rigorous kind of compositional gravity which was the focus of interest for several different but concurrent styles. It was Manet’s exercises in placing figures parallel to the picture plane so as to exploit the complexities of the resulting contours without suppressing the volumes altogether which particularly engrossed Homer, as may be seen in his Summer Afternoon of 1872 and again in Girl Shelling Peas of the following year.

The Fishermen at Sundown and Sandy Beach with Breakers, both from 1869, demonstrate Homer’s really fine abilities at the sheer manipulation of pigment; the great variety of handling of paint within each picture is right on the mark, constructing a consistent and coherent analog to the forms dealt with.

Along with this no-nonsense approach to form and formal structure (which even Henry James was forced to admire), Homer had early a prodigious feeling for light and atmosphere, and he came to possess a remarkable knowledge of how to invest his works with them. It is this ability which infuses the austere structure of the Man with a Scythe (1867) with the critical interest that a good, if unpolished, Homer always has. The later Girl Picking Apple Blossoms (1879) contains a much subtler evocation of atmosphere, but never lapses into the niggling smudges so many plein-airistes felt was the true legacy of Corot and the Barbizons. Homer’s bone-deep grasp of the necessity of a bold and forthright pictorial construction at all times would not allow him such solecisms.

This exhibition of smallish works should do much to reveal the core of genuine accomplishment in Homer that has been periodically obscured by prevailing tastes. His solid composition, his confident and varied handling, never tentative or aimless, and his successes with color and atmosphere will always merit appreciative attention.

Dennis Adrian