By Francesca Normile
Winslow Homer (1836-1910), was best known for his American landscapes, particularly those of the marine genre, and depictions of the ‘everyday life’ of Americans in the late 19th century. Though he had no formal training when he began to draw around the 1850s, he went on to become an artist whose work would captivate the nation. Homer’s paintings and drawings addressed a world that was changing around him. He witnessed the Civil War, the new beginning for American society that arrived after the trauma of war and what he saw as the shifting role of the American woman in the rise of leisure, work and family.
Growing up in and around New England, Homer’s artwork includes numerous visions of Long Island and of the pleasures of summer’s spent along the East Coast. It is relevant then, that the exhibition opening at Guild Hall this weekend is titled “Winslow Homer: The Pleasures of Summer” and it includes a number of works of East Hampton itself. Even more relevant is the fact that it’s the centennial year of Homer’s death. This exhibition is a celebration of an artist who, in addition to documenting the new American society, also turned his attention to the quiet, everyday life of summer days in the country.
“When I was a child,” Dr. David Tatham, the show’s curator, began, “my dad would take me around to the Boston museums — the Museum of Fine Arts, the museum at Harvard — and what I remembered the most after visiting the Museum of Fine Arts were a few Winslow Homer paintings. He was sort of a local hero. People thought he belonged in New England. I’m not so sure he did, but we did.”
When asked why Guild Hall is choosing to mount this exhibition now, Tatham, who is professor emeritus of North American Art at Syracuse University, responded, “not only is this year the centennial of Homer’s death, but Homer actually painted in East Hampton in 1874. The show at Guild Hall is focusing on a favorite subject of his: the pleasures of summer. He depicted summer on an East Hampton beach, for example, or in the Catskill mountains, or in farm meadows.”
Homer was quite a prolific artist and this show includes both drawings and paintings.
“The first 20 years or so of Homer’s career,” continued Tatham, “were as an illustrator. You can really see his growth as an artist in the collection. As the world around him changed, through the Civil War and then in its aftermath, so did his subjects. And he was addressing two different audiences with his art.”
Tatham explained that while Homer’s illustrations were geared towards the general public, he held his audience in great regard, and therefore did not “dumb down” his work for the masses, but rather offered a vision of the familiar.
“When he no longer needed to support himself through his illustrations,” added Tatham, “he moved to painting. And these were appealing to the fine art tastes of his time.”
What is it that enables Homer’s work to remain as evocative today as it was 100 years ago?
“There are two very different things that happen when people see Homer’s work,” explained Tatham. “First, it makes them think of a past century of America. Many are familiar with the French Impressionism of that time. In comparison, there is something more plainspoken and democratic about Homer’s work. He intended for his pieces to be more American.”
“Second, there is the strength and the power of his work that simply arrests its viewers,” he continued. “He had a remarkable drawing style and skill in painting. Critics in New York during Homer’s own time said, ‘You may like it, you may not. But damn, it is good work.’”
While the emphasis in contemporary art today is on dialogue, observed Tatham, this emphasis keeps Homer’s work significant.
“There is a kind of dialogue in his illustrations between the artist and his subjects that allows the pieces to remain relevant. And in terms of the importance today of art as discussion, his work says a lot about the status of the woman in 19th century America. He was the first artist to depict the new American woman — a woman with no connection at all to the domestic sphere, who was confident, athletic, independent, and well, usually upper-middle class. There is a lot of this in the Guild Hall collection.”
Of the numerous illustrations included in the upcoming show, Tatham contemplated which was his favorite. He decided upon an East Hampton scene called “Courting.”
“It is the only case in which Homer split the page into two sections,” Tatham explains. “In the top section is a nocturne — a couple, depicted from behind, sitting on a bench at the beach. In the bottom section we see a couple of little boys playfully teasing a little girl in the grass. In the foreground of this scene is a family of ducks passing by. So above, we see a couple who take courting very seriously and below, we see kids mimicking that courting, but to whom it means nothing. The ducks walking by in this scene act as a suggestion of what their courting will lead to — family.”
When asked to point out his favorite painting of Homer’s in the exhibit, Tatham chose a very early oil entitled “Croquet Players” from 1865.
“It was just at the end of the Civil War and Homer was making the big jump from wartime subjects to those of peacetime. And with no transition, he shows us the new American woman,” said Tatham. “There are no children in the scene, no suggestion of any connection whatsoever between the men and women playing croquet. No sense of male control. And croquet was a new game, introduced right around that time. He illustrates a new kind of combat. One with croquet balls replacing canon balls, with friendly competition replacing military competition. It is a very early painting of his and still it is marvelously done.”
“Winslow Homer: The Pleasures of Summer” opens June 19 with a Gallery Talk by Dr. David Tatham from 3 to 4 p.m. The opening reception follows from 4 to 5 p.m. for members and 5 to 6 p.m. for the public. The exhibit runs through July 25 in the Woodhouse Gallery at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. For more information, call 324-0806.