Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Diving Beneath the Surface

Winslow Homer. The Rapids, Hudson River, 1894. Transparent watercolor, with traces of opaque watercolor, blotting, and scraping, over graphite, on thick, rough-textured, ivory wove paper, 384 x 546 mm.Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

Anyone who has dabbled in painting, such as I have, stares a little harder at certain works in museums, as if by looking the secrets of how masterpieces are made will suddenly spring out, like the trout leaping for the baited line in Winslow Homer’s The Rapids, Hudson River (above). Such fragile watercolors are so rarely exhibited and close inspection is so rarely possible that any hope of getting to the heart of Homer’s art seems impossible for anyone other than specialists. In the exhibition Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light, The Art Institute of Chicago has opened up its vault of twenty-five rarely seen watercolors by Homer and placed them under a microscope for all to see. In the catalogue to the exhibition, Kristi Dahm plays “CSI” with Homer’s watercolors to reveal the methods he employed and the tools he used while Martha Tedeschi’s text integrates those technical pieces with a survey of Homer’s influences and experimentation with the watercolor medium. “An exercise in close, focused looking,” Tedeschi writes, “this book aims to be a tool for artistic self-teaching as well as an enhanced appreciation of Homer’s ‘bold, unguided effort’ as America’s master practitioner of watercolor.” Like Homer’s, Tedeschi and Dahm’s aim is unfailingly true.

Winslow Homer. For to Be a Farmer’s Boy, 1887. Transparent and opaque watercolor, with rewetting, blotting, and scraping, heightened with gum glaze, over graphite, on thick, rough-textured ivory wove paper (lower edge trimmed), 355 x 509 mm. Gift of Mrs. George T. Langhorne in memory of Edward Carson Waller.

Homer takes up watercolor painting in the summer of 1873 while staying in Gloucester, Massachusetts, at the age of thirty-seven. After witnessing the savagery of the American Civil War, Homer, like most of America, longed to move on and express a new American spirit. Many of these early watercolors show children and young women in the fresh air and enjoying the rural life. Although dating from 1887, For to Be a Farmer’s Boy (above) captures this feeling Homer hoped to convey. “As cities like New York became increasingly crowded and poluted,” Tedeschi writes, “the importance of fresh air and exercise—particularly for children—became part of a widespread interest in health and hygiene in which a sound body was closely associated with moral and social well-being.” Homer paints these early watercolors with a heavy dependence on opaque watercolor, but eventually explores the versatility and vibrancy of transparent watercolor for a greater range of effects. Lest Homer be seen as a simplistic portrayer of the American dream, Tedeschi uses watercolors by Homer of African-American children to demonstrate the artist’s sympathy for African Americans facing the failure of Reconstruction. And lest Homer be seen as an isolationist American, Tedeschi follows Homer’s encounter with the watercolors of J.M.W. Turner in a series of scenes of the Gloucester coast with different atmospheric effects.

Winslow Homer. The Watcher, Tynemouth, 1882. Transparent and opaque watercolor, with rewetting, blotting, and scraping, heightened with gum glaze, over graphite, on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper (all edges trimmed), 213 x 377 mm. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

After seeing Turner’s amazing oil painting The Slave Ship in Boston, Homer travels to England in 1880 to examine and learn from Turner’s watercolors firsthand. “It was only through immediate experience that he could appreciate their color,” Judith Walsh writes in her essay on Homer’s time in England. Walsh’s pursuit of Homer’s pursuit of Turner fits in nicely with Franklin Kelly’s essay on Turner’s American reception in the catalogue to the NGA’s Turner exhibition (which I reviewed here). In addition to confronting Turner face to face, Homer visits the British Museum and studies the drawings of Michelangelo and Raphael. From those Renaissance draftsmen, Homer discovers “the elements of his new drawing style—rhythmic groupings, bodies in easy motion or coiled in tension, and drapery lifted by the wind,” Walsh writes. The Watcher, Tynemouth (above) illustrates Homer using the lessons he learned in England, employing the subtle coloring and atmospheric style of Turner while emulating the Renaissance drawings of flowing drapery as the winds pull the woman’s clothes. Upon Homer’s return to New York in 1882, Tedeschi writes, “[c]ritics were quick to see in these new paintings the grandeur and stability of Italian Renaissance drawing, and a new willingness to reckon with the most profound concepts of life and death, of heroism, disaster, and survival, and of the shock and awe of nature.” Thanks to his time in England, Homer could see the New World with new eyes and paint it with a new vision.

Winslow Homer. The Gulf Stream, 1889. Transparent watercolor, with touches of opaque watercolor and traces of blotting, over graphite, on moderately thick, moderately textured, ivory wove paper (lower edge trimmed), 288 x 509 mm. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

Essays on Homer’s travels to the Adirondacks, Quebec, and the Tropics all add new dimensions to his continual experimentation with watercolors. Each new locale allowed Homer to pursue his love of fishing and hunting, which brought him into intimate contact with nature. Each new place also provided different challenges to him as a colorist, thanks to the different light and vegetation. Armed with a translation of Michel-Eugene Chevreul’s theories on color, calling it his “Bible,” Homer faced each of these new problems rationally and experimentally. Whereas previous theorists believed that colorists were born and not made, Chevreul proposed that color effects followed scientific principles and could be learned. Walsh shows that Homer proved an apt pupil, especially while summering in the Bahamas and Cuba, where the clear light and almost transparent seas provided a paradise of color. The Gulf Stream (above) stands as one of several studies for the oil painting of the same name in which a lone figure finds himself and his tiny craft surrounded by sharks. Although the final oil gives some hope that the figure will survive in the form of a possible rescue by another ship in the distance, Homer’s study titled Sharks (The Derelict), in which the man is nowhere to be found on a boat literally crawling with sharks, shows that the artist considered every possible outcome.

Winslow Homer. After the Hurricane, Bahamas, 1899. Transparent watercolor, with touches of opaque watercolor, rewetting, blotting and scraping, over graphite, on moderately thick, moderately textured (twill texture on verso), ivory wove paper, 380 x 543 mm. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

I cannot stress how wonderfully integrated the technical and art history components of this book are. Tedeschi brings up an aspect of Homer’s art and you turn the page to a brief piece in which Dahm illustrates that point, often with views only be possible otherwise by pressing your nose against the original. When Dahm shows how Homer created the twinkle in an Adirondack guide’s eye with a flick of a knife, removing the top layer of paper and pigment to restore the white beneath, you feel like you were right there with Homer at the moment of creation. The Art Institute of Chicago’s website includes a “Behind the Scenes” page that offers views of Homer’s tools, modern watercolor tools, and videos of watercolor techniques in action and demonstrated in Homer’s works to bring you even closer to the action than the exhibition or catalogue can. You cannot come away from this exhibit without greater respect for Homer as a technician. For example, in After the Hurricane, Bahamas (above), you see both the amazing palette and draftsmanship of Homer as well as the dramatic flair of the artist, who leaves you wondering if the beached sailor has survived the wreck. Sadly, this exhibition also examines the ravages of time on Homer’s watercolors, which have suffered from mold and fading thanks to the environment. Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light preserves Homer’s continually evolving, growing vision in closely studying Homer’s achievements in the past and thus inspiring new artists’ achievements in the future.

[Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing me with a copy of Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light and to The Art Institute of Chicago for providing me with the images above from the exhibition.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Check this out "The Bird Watchers" by Winslow Homer