Feature

Exhibit of the week: Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History

Winslow Homer was so prolific and his work so varied that the rewards his art offers seem inexhaustible.

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.
Through Sept. 8

“Who gets sick of looking at Homer? No one I know,” said Sebastian Smee in The Boston Globe. Though never underexposed, the American painter Winslow Homer (1836–1910) was so prolific and his work so varied that the rewards his art offers seem inexhaustible. That’s even true in bucolic Williamstown, Mass., a town that has been a pilgrimage site for Homer fans since Singer sewing machine heir Robert Sterling Clark and his wife, Francine, established a museum here almost 60 years ago and bequeathed to the institution one of the greatest private collections of Homer’s work. The great surprise of the museum’s fairly comprehensive current Homer retrospective might be a wall at the entrance that’s covered almost floor to ceiling with 63 of his wood engravings. “Most artists would suffer from such a crowded hang; Homer doesn’t.” His uncanny ability to generate emotion and drama from simple forms comes across so strongly that these prints “feel like the artist’s finest achievement.”

Visitors might have expected instead to be greeted by a blockbuster Homer oil painting, said Judith H. Dobrzynski in The Wall Street Journal. Several of those await viewers inside, including the 1900 ocean scene West Point, Prout’s Neck and 1868’s The Bridle Path, White Mountains—an “airy, light-filled” portrait of a young woman riding sidesaddle on a white horse. But the curators want us to appreciate how skilled Homer was in every medium he attempted. Even while producing journalistic work for Harper’s Weekly, his illustrations “frequently rose to fine art.” A print like 1874’s Gathering Berries, showing children at work in a field, has “all the detail, depth, texture, light, and other attributes of a great work.” In Homer’s large-scale paintings, “those qualities sometimes seem obscured by his virtuoso brushstrokes.”

Homer’s work underwent a major change around that time, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. In 1875, he gave up illustration and turned increasingly to paintings that set stoic human figures against the backdrop of an unruly sea. Undertow, an 1886 oil that’s essentially “a maritime pietà,” depicts two muscular men pulling a pair of unconscious, possibly drowned women from roiling waves. Nature, a “salvational force” in the work of so many earlier-19th-century American artists, has to Homer become a violent, unfeeling enemy. If he had known that Sterling Clark one day would sequester that painting in rural Williamstown to protect it against potential Cold War annihilation, he “might have been mildly amused.” To him, the wilderness was no refuge.

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