‘Coming Away’ with the drama of Winslow Homer

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Kat Kneev­ers Con­tribut­ing writer

I re­mem­ber see­ing Winslow Homer’s paint­ings in the dark­ened light of an art his­tory class­room. His pic­tures of 19th­cen­tury life were quintessen­tially Amer­i­can and pow­ered by an un­der­cur­rent of dra­matic strength.

Paint­ings of the sea are a ma­jor part of his work, as well as im­ages of out­door leisure ac­tiv­i­ties in the fresh air and un­spoiled land­scapes of his time.

While the exhibition Coming Away: Winslow Homer and Eng­land at the Mil­wau­kee Art Mu­seum fo­cuses on in­flu­ences Homer found dur­ing his so­journ over­seas, his char­ac­ter­is­tic themes are also well rep­re­sented.

Homer was born in 1836 in Bos­ton, and his artis­tic ca­reer had roots in his work as a news­pa­per il­lus­tra­tor cap­tur­ing the fla­vor of Union Army life dur­ing the Civil War. His draw­ings func­tioned as a sort of re­portage in an era be­fore pho­to­graphs in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines, adding a vis­ual com­po­nent to the sto­ries of the day. Af­ter the war, Homer even­tu­ally found suc­cess in the world of fine art, cre­at­ing scenes of daily life that breathe with his forth­right real­ism.

Coming Away be­gins with a se­lec­tion of these types of pic­tures, and the pen­chant of Homer for rep­re­sent­ing women in star­ring roles in his pic­tures is es­tab­lished.

The lush green lawn and trees of “Cro­quet Scene” (1866) are the back­drop for a quar­tet of play­ers, three women and one man, who kneels on the ground at­tend­ing to a ball. The com­po­si­tion is vis­ually dom­i­nated by the women dressed in bril­liant blue and red, with the sun­light glint­ing off the thick white fab­ric of their full hoop skirts.

“In the Moun­tains,” painted in 1877, is a com­pelling and sur­pris­ing ex­am­ple of this per­spec­tive on 19th-cen­tury fem­i­nin­ity. A shad­owy hill cuts through a cloudy sky where four hik­ers climb a steep and bar­ren land­scape. The hik­ers are all women, garbed in their long dresses of the day, and in­trepidly mak­ing their trek up­ward. Tall walk­ing sticks sug­gest this is a rugged place, but their com­mand­ing pres­ence and poses tell us this is no ob­sta­cle.

In 1881, Homer trav­eled to Eng­land, spend­ing time in Lon­don and soak­ing up the artis­tic cul­ture of the cap­i­tal. We are given a unique glimpse into this pe­riod by a se­lec­tion of works by his con­tem­po­raries, as well pieces that Homer most likely stud­ied him­self.

Two paint­ings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema stand out for their pris­tine color and de­tail, bring­ing imag­ined views of life in an­cient Rome vividly to life.

For Homer, how­ever, the re­mote north­east coast of Eng­land and the ham­let of Culler­coats was where he drew the most in­spi­ra­tion. The exhibition in­cludes many paint­ings and draw­ings of life in the fish­ing vil­lage, doc­u­ment­ing the phys­i­cal toils that de­fine a life in­debted to the sea.

Again, Homer of­ten de­picts the work of women, as they haul bas­kets of fish, re­pair nets, and un­daunt­edly haul tackle along the coast.

The exhibition winds up with Homer’s es­tab­lish­ment of a home base in Prout’s Neck, Maine, af­ter re­turn­ing state­side fol­low­ing nearly two years in Eng­land.

Dra­matic im­ages such as “The Life Line” (1884), in which an un­con­scious woman is saved by an anony­mous man, con­tinue the theme of peo­ple fac­ing na­ture’s power. The pair travel across huge gray waves, sus­pended by a pre­ciously thin rope car­ry­ing them to un­seen safety. The sea is ready to swal­low them whole, or so it seems.

“Coast in Win­ter” (1892) also presents a roil­ing sea, but this time it is held back. Large flat rocks that have been end­lessly pol­ished by ag­i­tated waves de­fine the bay. Curling white­caps set the wa­ter apart from the sky. The only hu­man pres­ence comes with a line of soli­tary foot­prints mark­ing the snow. They walk to­ward the wa­ter but do not come back. It would be hard to de­vise a more sub­tle or open-ended nar­ra­tive than this.

While Coming Away in­for­ma­tively de­scribes the in­flu­ences of Homer’s English so­journ on his later ca­reer, one of the things that vis­i­tors will likely ap­pre­ci­ate most is his skill as a sto­ry­teller. Drama in overt and sub­tle ways winds through Homer’s art, touch­ing in equal parts on the awe­some power of na­ture and the in­de­fati­ga­ble hu­man spirit.

PHOTOS: THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO/FRIENDS OF THE AMER­I­CAN ART COLLECTION/GOODMAN FUND, 1942.35

From top: Winslow Homer’s “Cro­quet Scene,” “The Life Line” and “Fisher Girl” de­tail.

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