The incisive 19th century America of Winslow Homer
By Jud Yalkut
Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is one of the most influential American artists to emerge in the 19th century and to auger in the beginning of the 20th century, influencing such diverse talents as western artist Frederic Remington and the Ashcan School of Robert Henri. Essentially a self-taught artist, this Boston native raised in formerly rural Cambridge came late to his most famous media of watercolor in 1873 in Gloucester, Mass. followed by two years (1881-82) in coastal towns in England. These environments eventually ensured his famed progress as a marine artist, enriched by his chosen residence in Prout’s Neck, Maine from 1883 to the end of his life.
Apprenticed to commercial Boston lithographer at the age of 19 producing numerous sheet music covers, Homer’s freelance career was enabled by 1857 after he had been offered and turned down a staff offer from Harper’s Weekly. His career as a masterful illustrator lasted almost 20 years with his graphic design talents enhancing many issues of Ballou’s Pictorial and Harper’s Weekly, the latter of which sent Homer to the frontlines of the Civil War. He turned many such images into powerful oil paintings, returning to the depiction of simpler times and more common life after the war.
Through the beneficence of a private Dayton collector, the Dayton Art Institute (DAI) is now showing a vast survey of Homer’s wood engravings in the exhibition “From Romance to Rifles: Winslow Homer’s Illustrations of 19th Century America,” through October 2. More than 50 engravings show his insights into the life of people from the battlefields to the diverse arenas of work and play.
Although photography had been invented and was practiced during the mid-1880s, the technique of half-toning images was not and the main source of magazine and book illustration was the line cut technique of wood engraving on Box tree wood blocks. Included in the DAI exhibition is Homer’s wood engraving of a clean-shaven “Abraham Lincoln” (1860) fashioned after a portrait photograph by Mathew Brady and published in Harper’s Weekly, November 1, 1860. A later, and smaller, image of “President Lincoln, General Grant and Tad Lincoln at a Railway Station” was published in The Century Magazine on November 7, 1874.
Harper’s Weekly called itself “A Journal of Civilization” and was a definitive news record of its time from 1857 through 1916, featuring 75,000 illustrations, maps and portraits by Homer and Frederic Remington, as well as the caustic political cartoons of Thomas Nast. Harper’s included a third of its material literature and verse from America and England, as did other publications such as Galaxy and Our Young Folks.
From his experience on the frontlines of the Civil War, Homer produced his first important paintings, as well as wood engravings documenting these events as a “special correspondent.” One of the most powerful and engaging of these images is his wood engraving, “The Army of the Potomac: A Sharp Shooter on Picket Duty” (1862), propped up in a tree with his canteen hanging from a branch. Four years of such work by Homer was a major precursor of embedded wartime reporting. “Home from the War” (1863) shows women clutching the uniformed men returned with new moustaches.
Winslow Homer had a warm appreciation of human joys and foibles, and a love of art, which began with the influence of his amateur watercolorist mother. His appreciation of the simple life emerges in such engravings as the stalwart woman standing in the doorway and blowing the “Dinner Horn” (1870) to call the working men from the fields; the precarious nature of a large tree about to fall in “Lumbering in Winter” (1871); the high snow drifts surrounding shovelers creating twisting pathways from a house in “A Winter Morning: Shoveling Out” (1871); the glimpse of early industrialization with a line of mill workers ascending a ramp as “The Morning Bell” rings in the distance; and the boys with model boats seated on pilings as they watch the construction of a huge boat in dry-dock with a dozen workers in “Ship Building: Gloucester Harbor” (1873).
As a documenter of life in the 19th century, Homer had very few peers. He ended his career as an illustrator in 1875 when he submitted his last drawing to Harper’s Weekly, but he continued his work in the intricate art of wood engraving published in Century Magazine. His love of the wild was later characterized by his “Darwinian” works such as the oil “The Fox Hunt” (1893) with its snow-bound fox pursued by a flock of starving crows, and one of his most famous oil marine works, “The Gulf Stream” (1899), with a black sailor adrift in a shark-infested sea.
The Dayton Art Institute is located at 456 Belmonte Park North. Admission to the museum and the exhibition “From Romance to Rifles” is $8 for adults, $5 for seniors, students and active military, and free for museum members and youth 17 and under. DAI’s Chief Curator Will South will give a talk on Homer’s engravings Sunday, August 28 at 2 p.m. in the museum’s NCR Renaissance Auditorium. Museum hours are 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, with extended hours to 8 p.m. Thursday, and noon – 5 p.m. Sunday. (937) 223-4278 or www.daytonartinstitute.org.
Reach DCP visuals critic Jud Yalkut