My problem is that I came in on Winslow Homer (1836-1910) when the sun of modernism still shined. My guide was Barbara Novak, and her widely-admired "American Painting of the Nineteenth Century" (1969). But if anybody wants a primer on how postmodernist clouds have rolled in over the artistic landscape, they have only to compare her treatment of Homer with the current retrospective "Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through July 31).
Not that this show isn't pleasurable, too. With 88 Homer oils, watercolors and other works on paper, one can't help finding much to enjoy. It's just that -- with a bit more generosity for the early work, and a lot more discretion in the choice of later work – this show could have given so much more joy as opposed to gloom.
The first question one might ask is, how do I define "early" and "late" in this context? Let us take Novak's division, when she says "in 1876, the year of "The Cotton Pickers," the early classicism gave way to more natural movement of forms in space." She speaks as an academic from the 60s, trained to focus on form and style before subject matter, but as her illustrations indicate, Homer's subject matter also changed.
In the earlier period, he chronicled the pleasures of pretty, well-dressed young ladies engaged in games like croquet, and adorable (though probably also mischievous) little boys, hanging out in seaside settings. Many of these paintings were reproduced as lithographs in popular magazines.
A native of New England, Homer had been apprenticed to a lithographer in Boston before moving to New York, and studying High Art there at the National Academy of Design. Thus, he was well-equipped to paint pictures and make illustrations for magazines of the same subjects, too.
When the Civil War broke out, he soon went to the battlefront and made pictures in both media of the armed services for the eager eyes of the folks back home. But his style was not yet ready to change. Even when depicting Civil War vets returning to their farms, he still favored the dignified figural types and clean, pure light of what Novak called "luminism." She considered luminism to be characteristically American -- and in this book demonstrated how it was shared by 19th century American painters as widely varied as Fitz Hugh Lane, George Caleb Bingham & William Sidney Mount.
As for Homer, during this early period she considered his work not only luminist but also "conceptual" -- as opposed to "perceptual." We today might call this later work less "hard-edge" and more "painterly," at least in the oils, coupled with an exceedingly literal form of realism in the later watercolors.
The subject matter changes, too. Gone are the fashionable young ladies and cute little urchins. Instead, we get hard-working English fisher folk in the early 1880s and picturesque denizens in the Caribbean of African descent from the '90s onward, coupled with an increasing fascination with roiling Atlantic surf, to say nothing of hunting scenes with wounded animals – especially after 1900.
To judge from her choice of pictures, there's no doubt in my mind which of the two periods in Homer's career Novak preferred. Though she was at least respectful of all the work she discussed, she reproduced 15 paintings by Homer made between 1865 and 1875, and only 16 from 1876 up until 1909, the year before the artist's death.
By contrast, the current show of 88 works at the Met includes only 17 oils and watercolors done by Homer up to 1875. On the other hand, there are at least 70 done in 1876 or later. That's right, at least 70 – including 15 done in the 20th century (as opposed to the 5 from the 20th century reproduced by Novak).
Then again, the Met isn't into serene and classical beauty in this show. As its press release states, "Crosscurrents" "will reconsider the artist's work through the lens of conflict." And again "A persistent fascination with struggle permeates Homer's art…."
In other words, the museum with its emphasis on "conflict" and "struggle" wants to go glum and negative, in line with the postmodernist fashion for discarding more positive values.
To be sure, negative subjects don't necessarily lead to inferior paintings. An 18th century aesthete might call what Homer tried to do was opt in mid-career for the sublime as opposed to the beautiful – switching into a Rubens groove as opposed to that of Poussin, opting for Turner as an ancestor and discarding Constable.
Still, this hard-working American was neither a Rubens nor yet a Turner, however determined he must have been to leave his mark.
Nor do any of the analogies between Homer and his19th century French contemporaries work all that well – at least, in the Met's carefully sanitized re-telling of his tale.
True, he spent a year in Paris in 1867, and one of his Civil War paintings was on view at the Exposition Universelle at the time. It's also true that Novak reproduces one of his paintings showing young ladies playing croquet and compares it with a Monet croquet scene. In the reproductions, the two look surprisingly similar.
However, the Met has firmly censored out most if not all of Homer's pretty girls. It has left only minimal traces of his cute little boys. And as the author of the Wikipedia article on him concedes, Homer's palette was never as bright as those of Monet and Renoir. Even in his earlier paintings, it was darker and murkier, more like Barbizon and Corot than impressionism.
Especially in the later oils, the plethora devoted to foamy waves crashing on "savage" shores is distinguished (if that's the word I want) by brushwork that looks a bit like soap suds.
Half of me wants to say, such brushwork seems academic. The other half screams Courbet, who was as avant-garde as they come in the 1840s and '50s – though conventional by the 1860s, when he did more of his many seaside scenes.
Not that any critic voicing such views would have made any difference to Homer in his later years. Solitary by nature, he'd settled in Prout's Neck, Maine after his return from England in 1882. By the turn of the century, he was so well-established that he could sell his seascapes to museums for high prices.
The Met alone contributes five such oils to this exhibition that were acquired in the early years of the 20th century -- several with the aid of George W. Hearn, a patron better known for establishing a fund for future curators to buy newer-looking work.
Needless to say, however, the postmodernist taste for the downbeat goes in Homer's case very well with his paintings of Civil War soldiers and the newly-freed African-Americans of Reconstruction. Every effort has been made to celebrate Homer as a hero of "diversity" more than a century before the movement acquired that title.
Not that there are many paintings dedicated to diversity in any way shape or form, but every last one seems to be here. They start with a gun-toting Civil War sniper up in a tree, the first picture in the show, and include "Dressing for the Carnival" (1877), a picture of imaginatively-costumed African Americans about to celebrate Jonkonnu. This was a slave-era Christmas festival from the British West Indies that blended African and European traditions and was adapted after the Civil War to celebrate July 4th.
In the typically over-written label for this picture, Homer is described as evoking "the dislocation and endurance of African-American culture that was a legacy of slavery." The date of the painting is also considered "relevant" since it was the year that with the withdrawal from the South of the last Federal troops marked the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow.
Such labels are all very interesting, but myself I think that Homer was more taken with the colorful costumes in this carnival gathering, and that those were what really prompted him to choose this subject. After all, the man was primarily an artist, and a political commentator only secondarily.
Novak recognized these priorities, even as she commented favorably on the choice of subject in "Dressing for the Carnival" and a related picture, "The Cotton Pickers" (1876). "By 1877," she wrote, "when Homer painted ["Dressing for the Carnival"], he was concerning himself primarily with light striking colorfully costumed forms. Both [paintings] represent, in addition, a genuine attempt to rescue the black from Uncle Tom status in American art."
She wasn't as enthusiastic about the painting which the Met would have you think was Homer's masterpiece, "The Gulf Stream" (begun 1899). It's displayed not once really but twice – first visible from the entrance through a hole in the partition separating the entry gallery from the back galleries, then a second time as the museum-goer walks past it in the back gallery where it hangs.
Blatantly histrionic, "The Gulf Stream" shows a sick or dying black man lying in what looks like a small sailboat with no mast and no rudder, surrounded by shark-infested waters and what looks like a tornado on the horizon (only in 1906 was a little ship in the distance added to offer a note of hope).
To the Met's press release writer, this "centerpiece of the exhibition" is "iconic…a painting that reveals Homer's lifelong engagement with the charged subjects of race, geopolitics and nature." Novak, on the other hand, calls it "one of the most famous but least plastically satisfying of Homer's paintings." Myself, I only want to add that "iconic" is my candidate for Most Overworked Adjective of the Year.
Look, I'm of the opinion that artists as a group are among the happiest of humans, anyway in the sense that they are doing what they really want to be doing (unlike all the unfortunate accountants and stockbrokers who would really rather be artists instead). But some artists seem to be happier and more serene than others, while some are definitely growly, no matter what kind of art they make.
Typical of the happier and more serene I'd nominate Hans Hofmann and Matisse. Typical of the growly would be Picasso, with his endless stream of unhappy love affairs, or Turner with his many eccentricities. But Winslow Homer started out as serene, only to wind up decidedly growly. Is this the way that we all age, or is it the psychic message propounded by this exhibition?