Winslow Homer 1836-1910
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The year 1875 was a good one for the still-young Winslow Homer. Although he had received generous praise for his Prisoners from the Front in the years just after the war (1866, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Homer was nonetheless constrained to continue with commercial illustration for another decade after its debut. Following the tumult of the war and Reconstruction, Homer was scrambling to find his voice, both in terms of subject matter and in medium. His interest in African–American subjects grew in the face of nettled critics who pressured him to find an authentically American subject. At the same time, his attempts at rendering handsome women in natural settings—in a few years a favorite trope of the American Impressionists—were roundly pilloried by the press, who complained of ill-proportioned figures. “We don’t object to her presence because her back is towards us, but because of her height—she is seven feet tall” [as quoted by Margaret C. Conrads in Winslow Homer and the Critics (2001), p. 21]. “There is so much girl here that were it to arise from its sitting position . . . here would be a giant . . . So long are the lower limbs of this peculiarity in black that were she to arise she would go clear out of the frame and pass through the muddy firmament Mr. Homer has painted above her. And to think there are no less than twenty-three similar caricatures by this artist at the present exhibition!” [ibid., p. 184].

Added to this is the perennial complaint that Homer’s work had an “unfinished” quality, often associated with “Impressionism.” While certainly Homer did not evince a commitment to the palette or paint handling of the growing French Impressionist movement, the term was used as an epithet to suggest a degree of finish inappropriate to public viewing, as well as a vaguely-defined European quality.

These were hurdles, not virtues, for Homer. His critics labeled his work thus as a dismissal, while a growing chorus, in the late 1870s, lamented only his wasted potential. Even his major supporters saw success only past the horizon: “Unmistakably, we think, that, when the conditions unite favorably, Mr. Homer will produce a truly great American painting” [ibid., p. 162]. Homer would not now, nor ever, put a polish to his works that his early critics seemed to require, but it is evident that he took many of these complaints to heart. He, too, sought a balance in subject and execution that would solidify his work as authentically American and timelessly artful.

In this crucible of post-bellum politics, imported Impressionism, and a view of what an appropriately American picture might be, Homer found a way forward in part by riding the wave of watercolor as it crested in 1875. In what had been considered solely a sketching medium, Homer found the pictorial manner by which he could embrace the picturesque American views that would come into clarity in the next decade.