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Winslow Homer and the Invention of American Art

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art focuses on the painter who depicted a nation.

By Bart Boehlert

The artist Winslow Homer, who stood at 5’7”, had an outsized influence on the shape and course of American art. In a stunning new exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled "Crosscurrents," curators Stephanie L. Herdrich and Sylvia Yount of the Met, with Christopher Riopelle of the National Gallery in London, present 88 oil paintings and watercolors that follow the artist’s development from his first oil in 1863 to his death in 1910. The New York Times called the show “spectacular” and “wondrous,” and The Washington Post says it’s a “knockout.”

At a time when writers like Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville were creating a new voice for American literature, Homer was forging a similar sensibility in art. Said John Updike, “Homer was painting’s Melville.” The artist was born in 1836 in Boston, Massachusetts; his mother was a watercolorist, his father a hardware merchant.

After graduating from high school, Homer pursued a career as a freelance illustrator. He moved to New York City and opened a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building, the first purpose-built workspace for artists in New York. The popular Harper’s Weekly magazine sent Homer to the frontlines of the Civil War to sketch scenes and camp life of the battlefields of Virginia. The self-taught artist began to develop his oil painting practice.

Said John Updike, "Homer was painting's Melville."

The artist excelled at capturing simple, natural American scenes, like Breezing Up, which expresses the sheer pleasure and joy of sailing on the sea, and Snap the Whip, which illustrates the happiness and freedom of playing in the country. Homer did travel to London and Paris, but recorded little of his trips and did not adopt any of the current European art styles, instead staying true to his vision of uncomplicated American naturalism.

In 1883, Homer moved to Prouts Neck, Maine, just south of Portland, where he lived for the last three decades of his life on family property in a remodeled carriage house 75 feet from the ocean. To escape the harsh Maine winters, he traveled to warmer climates in Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas, producing luminous watercolor paintings that shine with a clear, lucid light.

Previously, watercolors had been used by amateur painters or for unfinished preparatory studies, but Homer elevated the medium to a fine art form in its own right. His watercolors were popular and easier to sell than his oil paintings so he relied on them as a source of income. Today, Homer’s works in watercolors are some of the most prized in American art.

Wherever he was located, Homer was inspired by the sea. The central focus of this exhibition is the large The Gulf Stream. In it, a Black man lies on a distressed boat with a broken mast. On the upper left is pictured the hope of a ship; on the upper right, the danger of a storm. Before him, menacing sharks churn in the dangerous waves. On the canvas Homer wrote, “from 12 feet,” directing the viewer to stand back while looking at this painting. Homer tells a vivid story in one frame, but the viewer doesn’t know how the story will end.

In paintings done in Maine, Homer captured dramatic scenes of the ocean in all of its statesthe translucence of shallow water, the frothy break of waves, and the way the sun or moon reflects in the distance so that the viewer can feel the water as though they too, are there.

Besides the sea, at the end of his life, mortality was a theme in Homer’s work as illustrated in two wrenching paintings: Right and Left (1909), which pictures two flying ducks who have just been shot in mid-air, and Fox Hunt (1893) that shows ominous-looking black crows threatening a fox in deep snow.

Homer himself died in 1910 at the age of 74 in his Prouts Neck studio and was interred in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He never married and his private life remained secretive.

At a time when American artists like John Singer Sargent, James Whistler, and Mary Cassatt traveled to Europe and adopted polished and sophisticated European painting styles, Winslow Homer remained steadfastly honest to his American roots. He basked in painting ordinary scenes of daily life and captured the breathtaking beauty of nature around him.

The self-taught artist represented an independent, self-reliant individualistic spirit. Like Whitman, Twain, and Melville, he was a storyteller who narrated tales of the American experience. Devoid of European influence, Homer's work had a freshness and simplicity and originality that expressed the greatest American quality: freedom.

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