‘Coming Away’ with the drama of Winslow Homer
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.
From top: Winslow Homer’s “Croquet Scene,” “The Life Line” and “Fisher Girl” detail.