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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Homer, Winslow


Sunlight and shadow
c.1872
oil on canvas
69 x 79 cm
Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, New York, NY, USA

Homer painted about a dozen small paintings during his stay in Paris in 1867. Although he arrived in France at a time of new fashions in art, Homer’s main subject for his paintings was peasant life, showing more of an alignment with the established French Barbizon school and the artist Millet, then with newer artists Manet and Courbet. This painting is a portrait of the new woman of leisure, reading, depicted in c.1872 after his stay in Paris. There is an odalisque-like quality to the image, the young woman alone and utterly relaxed, her legs and dress casually draped over the side of the hammock that swaddles her, and, though fully clothed, in dishabille.

"Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems."

Winslow Homer (1836 - 1910) was one of the most authentic and important American artists of the 19th century. He is remembered for his landscapes, many featuring scenes of the sea, boats, and coastlines. He did not receive formal art training. He began his art career as an apprentice for a commercial lithographer. In the late 1850's he began doing work for Harper's Weekly. His early work for Harper's was primarily to create line art drawings from photographs. At the time pictures were printed by "stamping" them from a large wood block.

Born in Boston, from a parent from long lines of New Englanders, he spent his adolescence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, surviving the absence of a father who rushed out to California to pan for gold. At nineteen he learned how to draw on the job at a lithography shop by illustrating or copying of photographs for sheet music covers of popular songs. He subsequently took up oil painting and produced major studio works characterized by the weight and density he exploited from the medium. He also worked extensively in watercolor, creating a fluid and prolific oeuvre, primarily chronicling his working vacations.

Homer's mother was a gifted amateur watercolorist and his first teacher, and she and her son had a close relationship throughout their lives. Homer took on many of her traits, including her quiet, strong-willed, terse, sociable nature; her dry sense of humor; and her artistic talent. He was an average student, but his art talent was evident in his early years.
His father was a volatile, restless businessman who was always looking to "make a killing". When he was thirteen, his father gave up the hardware store business to seek a fortune in the California gold rush. When that failed, his father left his family and went to Europe to raise capital for other get-rich-quick schemes that didn't materialize.

Homer's career as an illustrator lasted nearly twenty years. He contributed illustrations of Boston life and rural New England life to magazines, at a time when the market for illustrations was growing rapidly, and when fads and fashions were changing quickly. His early works, mostly commercial engravings of urban and country social scenes, are characterized by clean outlines, simplified forms, dramatic contrast of light and dark, and lively figure groupings - qualities that remained important throughout his career. His quick success was mostly due to this strong understanding of graphic design and also to the adaptability of his designs to wood engraving.