Published: February 20, 2001
Winslow Homer and the Critics:
KANSAS CITY, MO. – In the 1870s, Winslow Homer was celebrated by art critics as the best and most American artist of the decade, for his art fulfilled the requirement that to be American was to be independent and original. His unconventionality, however, also stirred tremendous controversy and brought harsh criticism from some of the art press. “Winslow Homer and the Critics: ,” which runs through May 6 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, explores Homer’s pivotal role in shaping a national art.
More than 50 of Homer’s most famous oil paintings and watercolors, along with less familiar but equally significant works from 1868 to 1881, are displayed in the unique context of the turbulent, symbiotic relationship between this American master and the nation’s early art critics.
The exhibition is organized by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and curated by Dr Margaret C. Conrads, Samuel Sosland Curator of American Art at the Nelson-Atkins. The works have been drawn from museums and private collections across the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. After opening at the Nelson-Atkins, the show will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Ga., where it will be seen from June 10 through September 9, and October 6 through January 6, 2002, respectively.
In 1868, Homer, a Boston native, was 32 years old and an acclaimed, rising artist just returned from a year abroad and reestablishing himself into the New York art world. By early 1881, at age 45 and about to embark on his second and final European sojourn, Homer found himself in a class alone – at once radical and old guard, controversial and status quo. In the intervening dozen years, which are the focus of this exhibition, he actively participated in the New York art world, and his work attracted the most sustained and penetrating commentary in the art writings of the day. “Winslow Homer and the Critics” draws attention to this understudied period of Homer’s otherwise well known career and enables us to view Homer as he was seen by his contemporaries.
Homer spent the years of the Civil War shuttling between his New York home and the battlegrounds of Virginia, producing a well-known series of illustrations of army life for Harper’s Weekly and his first group of paintings, also of war-related topics. In 1866, he catapulted to fame when “Prisoners from the Front” (Metropolitan Museum of Art) appeared at the National Academy of Design. Homer’s experience as an artist in the 1870s was grounded in this initial success.
The high praise it garnered marked Homer as America’s young artist of promise. His designation as the quintessential American artist and the country’s hope for the creation of an identifiable national art remained constant throughout the decade. As a result, high, even unrealistic, expectations by art critics plagued him, and often placed him at the center of controversy as well as praise.
The New York art community of the 1860s and 1870s was still relatively small and tight-knit, though blossoming, and during this time America and American art began a period of significant transformation. Unprecedented industrialization, severe financial panics, record immigration, rampant materialization, and class conflicts were just a few of the challenges in post-Civil War American society.
The changes in art, while not as momentous as changes in the country at large, were no less comprehensive. After three decades of artistic supremacy, the Hudson River School of landscape painting began to wane, but with no single aesthetic available to replace it. In 1868, ten daily New York City newspapers included art articles in their pages.
Over the next 13 years, the amount of attention given to the art world grew tremendously. Art criticism in magazines experienced an expansion similar to that of newspapers. Eight general magazines had an ongoing, if irregular, commitment to the visual arts between 1868 and 1881. Also during this time, art magazines developed as a new genre in periodical literature. All these venues provided fertile ground for art criticism, and in them, aesthetic battles raged as Homer and American art simultaneously matured.
In its exhibition design, “Winslow Homer and the Critics” presents the works, not necessarily in the order in which Homer completed them, but as they were shown at public spaces including the National Academy of Design, American Watercolor Society, clubs like the Century Club, and auctions.
Therefore, museum-goers will witness Homer’s paintings in much the same way that 1870s art-interested New Yorkers would have come to know his work. This layout and the accompanying text panels and labels allow visitors to simultaneously view the paintings and consider the critics’ responses, from the emphatic approval to the stinging rebukes, which erupted in response to Homer’s art. A comparative gallery of works by Homer’s peers highlights the great visual difference between his work and his colleagues’.
Upon entering the exhibition, visitors discover paintings that were first exhibited in the late 1860s and early 1870s, a time when subject matter predominated as the determining factor of a painting’s success. The themes Homer explored were drawn from current events and topics of contemporary concern – the treatment of women, children, and African-Americans, the status of the American farm, and the preservation of the wilderness – and remain relevant topics today.
At the same time that Homer’s use of native themes was applauded, he was sometimes condemned for his fascination with what some considered trivial subject matter and for bordering on the inappropriate. When he showed “Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts,” a painting of three young women at the beach, at the 1870 National Academy exhibition, it was labeled unique, defiant, “not quite refined,” and “of questionable taste,” on account of both the subject and the implied voyeurism in its presentation.
Though consistently nationalistic and contemporary in his themes, Homer presented his subject matter in styles that fluctuated between or combined experimental and standard artistic treatment. At a time when most critics considered American art to be languishing, Homer’s work was appreciated in part for its daring approach. His artistic practices, however, particularly the lack of conventional perspective in combination with a loose painting style, frequently came under attack.
His lack of finish was criticized in commentary about “Cernay la Ville – French Farm,” “Rocky Coast and Gulls,” “White Mountain Wagon,” and others. With “The Country School,” a painting depicting a class in session in a rural, one-room schoolhouse, Homer learned how subject and style might be finessed.
After criticism that his subjects were “trifling” and “vapid,” Homer responded with one in “The Country School” that critics embraced as “thoroughly national.” From this point on, he recognized that using an especially national subject could gain him considerable stylistic freedom, or conversely, that using a more traditional technique could gain him latitude with his subject matter. Slowly, too, the critics came to be more accepting of his vigorous painting style.
In 1873, Homer turned to watercolor, a medium for which he had a special affinity. Even though his watercolors would at times provoke the same extremes of critical reactions as his oils, in turn, these works forced the critics to come to terms with the medium and eventually accept it as valid in its own right. The exhibition contains 26 watercolors, some of which are “How Many Eggs?” “Backgammon,” and “Sunset Fires.”
As the New York art world of the mid-1870s entered a period of rapid change, Homer’s work underwent its own transformation. The exhibition of works such as “Milking Time” in 1875 marked the expansion of his reliance on pictorial design and artistic treatment, especially the use of light and color. The following year, the appearance of “Breezing Up” (boys and a young man sailing) and “Unruly Calf” (an African-American boy pulling a calf with a rope leash) reinforced Homer’s contradictory position as the leading artist who fulfilled the requirements for a national art at the same time that he continued to challenge his viewers. Even as he remained rooted in tradition, in nearly every work he would, in some way, break with orthodox art practices. If the subject of “Breezing Up” celebrated the joys and vitality of American life, that of “Unruly Calf” was deemed, by many critics, as undeserving subject matter.
After the Centennial celebrations of 1876, Homer’s art was most ostensibly engaged with the variety of new trends made popular by the influx of European paintings and American artists trained in Munich or Paris. In the last years of the decade, his images of fashionable women (“Woman and Elephant”) and young shepherds and shepherdesses (“Girl with Hay Rake,” “Girl and Sheep”) and his appropriation of decorative and Japanese aesthetics (“The Cotton Pickers”) especially played into the contemporary cosmopolitan.
Yet, once the European-trained artists appeared on the New York art scene, Homer’s place as the most radical, unconventional, and sketchy painter was eclipsed. Instead, because Homer’s images were always perceived, first and foremost, as native, they offered his viewers an avenue for the acceptance of European influence without compromising their status as Americans. Thus, as the decade wore on, Homer’s watercolors and oils were simultaneously appreciated for embracing European influence while remaining thoroughly national. “Answering the Horn” and the watercolors he exhibited in 1879 (“Fresh Air”), for instance, demonstrated his ability to nationalize artistic strategies, even when they were clearly derived from European sources.
By the close of the 1870s, Homer had achieved a prominence reserved for few artists. Throughout the decade, his art was called original, individual, free, honest, truthful, strong, vigorous, pure, natural, unconventional, masculine, crude, and uncouth. While the critics heralded Homer for his independent Americanism, they most often criticized him when he seemed to push independence and originality beyond acceptable limits. Homer’s originality was repeatedly his downfall as well as his salvation. At once America’s art hero and renegade, Homer in the 1870s played an essential role as a painter who, with the critics, transformed the concept of a national art.
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