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Some major artists create popular stereotypes that last for decades; others never reach into popular culture at all. Winslow Homer was a painter of the first kind. Even today, 150 years after his birth, one sees his echoes on half the magazine racks of America. Just as John James Audubon becomes, by dilution, the common duck stamp, so one detects the vestiges of Homer's watercolors in every outdoor-magazine cover that has a dead whitetail draped over a log or a largemouth bass, like an enraged Edward G. Robinson with fins, jumping from dark swamp water. Homer was not, of course, the first "sporting artist" in America, but he was the undisputed master of the genre, and he brought to it both intense observation and a sense of identification with the landscape-just at the cultural moment when the religious Wilderness of the nineteenth century, the church of nature, was shifting into the secular Outdoors, the theater of manly enjoyment. If you want to see Thoreau's America turning into Teddy Roosevelt's, Homer the watercolorist is the man to consult.
The Homer sesquicentennial (he was born in 1836 and died in 1910) is being celebrated with "Winslow Homer Watercolors," organized by Helen Cooper at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Her catalogue is a landmark in Homer studies. It puts Homer in his true relationship to illustration, to other American art and to the European and English examples he followed, from Ruskin to Millet; its vivacity of argument matches that of the paintings. Cooper has brought together some two hundred watercolors-almost a third of Homer's known output. It is a wholly delectable show, and it makes clear why watercolor, in its special freshness and immediacy, gave Homer access to moments of vision he did not have in the weightier, slower diction of oils.
You will see, in the future I will live by my watercolors," Homer once remarked, and he was almost right. He came to the medium late: he was thirty-seven and a mature artist. A distinct air of the Salon, of the desire for a "major" utterance that leads to an overworked surface, clings to some of the early watercolors-in particular, the paintings of fisher folk he did during a twenty-month stay in the northern English coastal village of Cullercoats in 1881-82. Those robust girls, simple, natural, windbeaten and enduring, planted in big boots with arms akimbo against the planes of sea, rock and sky, are also images of a kind of moralizing earnestness that was common in French Salon art a century ago. Idealizations of the peasant, reflecting an anxiety that folk culture was being annihilated by the gravitational field of the city, were the stock of dozens of painters like Jules Breton, Jules Bastien-Lepage and jean-FranĂ§ois Millet. Homer's own America had its anxieties too-immense ones. Nothing in its cultural history is more striking than the virtual absence of any mention of the central American trauma of the nineteenth century, the Civil War, from painting. Its fratricidal miseries were left to writers (Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane) to explore, and to photographers. But painting served as a way of oblivion-of reconstructing an idealized innocence. Thus, as Cooper points out, Homer's 1870s watercolors of farm children and bucolic courtships try to memorialize the halcyon days of the 185os; the children gazing raptly at the blue horizon in Three Boys on the Shore, their backs forming a shallow arch, are in a sense this lost America. None of this prevented Homer's contemporaries from seeing such works as unvarnished and in some ways disagreeable truth. "Barbarously simple," thought Henry James. "He has chosen the least pictorial features of the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization as if they were every inch as good as Capri or Tangier; and, to reward his audacity, he has incontcstably succeeded."
Once into his forties, Homer rarely went anywhere without rag paper, sable brushes and little pans of color. He took his working vacations in places he knew would give him subjects-the New England coast, the Adirondacks, the tumultuous rivers of Quebec, the Florida Keys and the dark palmetto-fringed pools of Homosassa, the bays and whitewashed coral walls of the Bermudas.
lthough Homer exhibitions up to now have tended to treat his watercolors as ancillary to his oils, mere preparations, it is clear at the National Gallery that Homer did not think the same way and that he did more than any other nineteenth-century American artist to establish watercolor as an important medium in this country. In structure and intensity, his best watercolors yield nothing to his larger paintings. Homer had great powers of visual analysis; he could hardly look at a scene without breaking it down and resolving it as structure, and some of his paintings of the Adirondack woods, with their complicated shuttle of vertical trunks against a fluid background of deep autumnal shade, are demonstration pieces of sinewy design. He was able to isolate a motif in action, as though the watercolor were a pseudo-photograph. This sometimes looks false, but it was exactly the kind of falsity that appealed to popular taste, and Homer's watercolors of leaping trout and thrashing bass, the Big Fish dominating the foreground, are a curious conjunction of the merely illustrative and the frenetically decorative. In his sober moods he was rarely off-key. His Adirondack paintings have the astringent completeness of the Michigan woods in early Hemingway. Perhaps no painting has ever conveyed a hunter's anxiety better than Hound and Hunter, with its flustered boy in the dinghy trying to get a rope on a shot stag's antlers before its corpse sinks, lurching to and fro in a cave of forest darkness and disturbed silver ripples.
Watercolor is tricky stuff, an amateur's but really a virtuoso's medium. It is the most light-filled of all ways of painting, but its luminosity depends on the white of the paper shining through thin washes of pigment. One has to work from light to dark, not (as with oils) from dark to light. It is hospitable to accident (Homer's seas, skies and Adirondack hills are full of chance blots and free mergings of color) but disaster-prone as well. One slip, and the veil of atmosphere turns into a mud puddle, a garish swamp. The stuff favors broad effects; nothing proclaims the amateur more clearly than niggling and overcorrection. It can be violated (Homer sometimes did his highlights by tearing strips of paper away to show white below), but it also demands an exacting precision of the hand-and an eye that can translate solid into fluid in a wink. Homer understood and exploited all these needs of watercolor better than his contemporaries, and he applied them where they most belonged--to the recording of immediate experience. A painting like Key West, Hauling Anchor, 1903, has a sparkling directness hardly attainable in oil. It is so simple-looking - blue sea, white boat, a patch or two of red shirt, the red picked up again at the boat's waterline and in a jaunty lick or two of carmine reflection - that at first one does not mark the skill that went into it, the power of epigrammatic observation implicit in Homer's ability to convey the milky blue water over a Florida sand bottom in two washes of cerulean and cobalt. One knows how little time it took to see and how little to do; but one senses the years of self-critical practice behind it. No wonder Homer is the despair of every amateur.
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