‘In the thick of things’
Clark Art Institute exhibits the triumph of worldly Winslow Homer
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1955
Winslow Homer, A Good Pool, Saguenay River, 1895.
Watercolor over graphite, with scraping, on cream wove paper.
Two canoeists fight the rapids on Quebec's Saguenay River, dubbed by a poet as "the River of Death" due to its turbulence. The well-known Canadian angler George Van Felson said that Homer's depiction of fish have "the gloss, the sheen, that fades away a few moments after being landed."
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1955.7
Winslow Homer, West Point, Prout’s Neck, 1900. Oil on canvas. The Clark
Homer spent the last 27 years of his life living near the sea in Maine. "Never put more than two waves in a picture," he once wrote. "It's fussy." His studio is now open to the public.
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1955.1485
Winslow Homer, Fisher Girl with Net (detail), 1882. Graphite, gouache, and gray wash on gray laid paper. The Clark
The Bay Stater found a rich vein of images and history to work with during his stay in England. "Look at the fishergirls (of Cullercoats)," he wrote, "...there are none like them in my country in dress, feature or form." Sterling Clark purchased the drawing for $1,400 in 1945.
Winslow Homer, Perils of the Sea, 1888. Etching on vellum. The Clark, 1955.1482
The etched image is based upon an earlier watercolor the artist made capturing the drama of an oceanside vigil. Homer lived for some 20 months in the North Sea fishing village of Cullercoats in England where he composed this scene.
Winslow Homer, The Bridal Path, 1868 oil on canvas. The Clark
The lone female figure, detached from a party of other tourists on horseback, is swept up in her own thoughts while on the Crawford Path in the White Mountains. Writing for the "Magazine of Arts" in 1948, Frank Mather Jr. wrote that the painting "celebrate(s) the charm of the American girl..."
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1955.1502
Winslow Homer, The Eagle’s Nest, 1902. Watercolor over graphite on cream wove paper. The Clark
Homer was an avid outdoorsman, a fisherman and a hunter. His lively command of watercolors rivaled his expertise in oils.
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1955.4
Winslow Homer, Undertow, 1886. Oil on canvas. The Clark
Despite the appearance of the two females, they both survived a near drowning. Homer witnessed a rescue similar to this in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1955.3
Winslow Homer, Two Guides, 1877. Oil on canvas. The Clark
Homer has captured well the atmosphere of autumn in the Andirondacks, the image centered upon Bear Mountain. The painting is composed of a series of diagonals, directing your eye to the two figures. The older guide's outstretched hand suggests a vista beyond, intending to provoke the viewer's imagination.
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Gift of Frank and Katherine Martucci, 2013.1.3
George Inness frequently highlighted his landscapes with vague, indistinct figures. The female form in white may be, in Senior Curator Richard Rand's opinion, some "kind of a spirit or spirit of the woods...(Inness) felt that nature was infused with the otherworldly."
“The sun will not rise or set without my notice and thanks.”
Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
The paintings of Winslow Homer, with his often electrifying use of color and bold designs, quite simply, are works to be marveled at even by people who have no interest in art. With a career spanning more than a half-century, the artist, largely self-taught, vigorously detailed 19th-century life. His lively images range from the drama of the American Civil War and the romance of the Victorian Age to the transcendent qualities of the great outdoors. Through Sept. 8 you can view more than 190 Homer works at Williamstown’s Clark Art Institute chronicling his first youthful steps in lithography to his maturity in seascape masterworks.
“By virtue of the Clark’s collection we’re able to survey Winslow Homer’s complete career, from soup to nuts,” the exhibit’s curator, Marc Simpson, said during a press reception. He’s also the author, along with nine other contributors, of the exhibit’s companion catalogue “Winslow Homer The Clark Collection” (Yale University Press; 223 pgs. $50).
Robert Sterling Clark (1877-1956), the institute’s founder, was born to wealth as an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. A one-time military officer and inveterate adventurer, he had several residences and, while living in Paris, began what was to become a formidable art collection. Four years before marrying the actress Francine Clary in 1919, he purchased his first Homer work for $800. Believing that the artist was the greatest American painter of the 19th century, in his lifetime Clark amassed the largest private collection of Homer’s works.
Simpson told reporters that this summer’s show is meant to inform viewers of both the sweep of Homer’s talent as well as the range of his interests in various media. “We can show this material in such great depth because of the collecting ambition of Robert Sterling Clark,” the curator said. “... overall he owned more works by Winslow Homer than by any other artist ... Homer and Clark are entwined.”
The boxwood images
Homer was born in Boston to a father who was frequently absent while pursuing get-rich-quick schemes. His artistic mother taught him watercoloring. An apprenticeship, at age 19, to a lithographer was unhappy enough that he vowed to work forever after as a freelancer.
“From the time that I took my nose off the lithographic stone, I have had no master and never shall have any,” Homer wrote at the time.
Two years later he was establishing himself as a valued illustrator for Harper’s Weekly and Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion. Upon first entering the exhibit, viewers will be presented with an entire wall of these black and white newsprint images, ranging from the Civil War front lines to absurdly overdressed Victorian Age women at the beach.
“This material presents an extraordinary resource for people who are interested in ... American 19th-century culture and life,” Simpson said. “The images gave the 19th-century reader the opportunity to understand the visual element of the world outside of their daily experience.”
Newspapers at the time were light years from reproducing photographs. Instead, illustrators drew images on boxwood blocks. To speed the process, the block was cut into 16 cubes and as many woodcut engravers would then carve their portion of the image, all to be reassembled for the press. With so many different engravers contributing, the results, at times could be surreal.
Nevertheless, Homer’s renderings, from President Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural to the play of barefoot schoolboys, display brilliant draughtsmanship and a strong sense of movement.
Simpson’s hope is that, when first entering the galleries, visitors will be stunned, seeing scores of these intricate wood engravings in tight formation.
As this country entered World War II, nostalgia for a long-ago, seemingly simpler era became feverish and Clark purchased virtually an entire selection of these early newspaper prints by Homer for $5 apiece. They now command up to $1,000 each among collectors. “It’s high-tech,” the curator said of the antique process. “It’s like the digital media age, so it’s very exciting and colorful material.”
Homer, a lifelong bachelor, was devoted to his family and a caregiver to his ailing father in his declining years.
“He’s gruff on the outside and wry, witty, dry-humored and ‘gooshy’ on the inside,” Simpson said in describing the artist. “(He’s) a great personality, taciturn, did not suffer fools gladly. He’s a straight-shooter in terms of his correspondence.”
One acquaintance recalled him as “a quiet little fellow but he liked to be in the thick of things.”
Homer was a worldly man, living in Paris, and later in England while pursuing his art.
The exhibit displays many of Homer’s elegant cursive messages to his agents as well as several preliminary drawings of what were to become his masterworks.
Clark purchased the autumnal, woodsy “Two Guides” for $10,000 in 1916. With the Adirondacks’ Bear Mountain in the distance, an older man points out a vista to a younger man who holds an ax. There’s rich complexity in the painting’s design.
“This becomes something not just sitting on the wall for you to wonder at,” Simpson said. “It’s something that challenges you and makes you start thinking.”
The underlying design is a series of diagonals, including the ax handle, leading your eye to the two appropriately placed figures. The guide points off to your left, taking you outside the painting.
“A lot of painters will put a red dot in the middle of a painting,” the curator said. “Corot always has a guy with a red hat in the middle of a painting in order to draw your attention to that spot.”
Homer is not so subtle. The young guide wears a bright red shirt.
Drowning in oils
The artist was an avid outdoorsman, fisherman and hunter, producing landmark paintings depicting the raw forces of nature. Spending almost two years in the fishing community of Cullercoats, England may have further sensitized him to the brutality and frequent tragedy of ocean life. Homer’s seascapes are thought by critics to be stellar achievements and the Clark provides a quartet.
“No other private collector in the 20th century had the opportunity to buy four Homer seascapes,” Simpson said. “It’s just not done.”
Homer spent the last 27 years of his life working in Prout’s Neck, Maine. Upon leaving New York, he enthused that there was “no other man or woman within a half a mile.”
His studio, owned by the Portland Museum of Art, is available to the public for tours and social gatherings.
The four ocean scenes were painted there and their total effect in a single gallery is dynamic. One early collector, walking into Homer’s seascape-laden study, said “I walked in there and I’d feel as if I was going to be drowned!”
With the mid-2014 unveiling of the institute’s expansive 42,500-square-foot visitor and exhibit center in the wings, entrants to the newly renovated 1955 marble museum will first be met with the works of Homer and a contemporary, if polar opposite, George Inness (1825-1894).
The Clark has recently received a gift of eight Inness paintings, for a total collection of 10 oils.
“It’s a wonderful event for us,” Senior Curator Richard Rand said during the press reception. “It really marks the most significant addition to the collection of American art at the Clark since its founding.”
Inness’ perception is a world apart from Homer’s. His landscape paintings are impressionistic, ethereal, soft light images derived from the painter’s dedication to the philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg. In simple terms, the belief is that spiritualism and balance is found in all of nature.
“I think of him as a 19th-century Mark Rothko,” Rand said. “They’re very beautiful, serene paintings, but they’re infused with a transcendentalist point-of-view.”
Inness also traveled widely, spending time in Italy, France and England. The restful landscapes on view, however, are primarily of what was then rural Montclair, New Jersey.
In “A Pastoral” a dairyman follows cows through a wetland. In the distance a mysterious female figure in white looks on.
“Now whether she’s a real person ... an apparition ... some memory,” Rand said. “You begin to start thinking these kinds of things. She’s kind of a spirit of the woods in a way.”
Both painters, esteemed in their time and forever after, depict a world never to be seen again.
“Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History” and “George Inness: Gifts From Frank and Katherine Martucci” continue at the Clark though Sept. 8. Open daily in August, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $15; age 18 and younger, free. Directions: Take Route 2 west to Williamstown. The institute is a half-mile south from the rotary intersection of routes 2 and 7, just past the college.
Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.