After seeing some of these wood engravings at a New York dealer in 1941, the sharp-eyed Clark noted in his diary: “They portray the life of the times from about 1863 to 1875 or so — Really admirable some of them . . . Lots of movement . . . A really great artist.” What could any puffed-up piece of art criticism add to that?
Clark had purchased his first Homer, an unremarkable painting called “The Rooster,” in New York in 1915. (Homer had died in 1910, at 74). It cost him $800. He later sold it. Before the end of World War I, Clark had acquired the painting “Two Guides,” as well as two watercolors, “The Eagle’s Nest” and “A Good Pool, Saguenay River”— masterpieces all three.
In 1923 and 1924, in the wake of his acrimonious break with his brother Stephen, Clark spent almost $140,000 (“an immense sum for the era,” writes Simpson) on works by Homer, among them “Summer Squall,” “Undertow,” and “Eastern Point.”
“Eastern Point” he later sold, before having a change of heart and, after many years of trying and failing, buying it back. He paid for his indecision: The price the second time around was far higher than he paid for any other Homer.
“Undertow,” although it is among the grandest and most sparkling of Homer’s canvases, is a picture I cannot look at without some discomfort: Virile to a fault, those lifesavers may be doing a great job, but must they pose and preen like that?
It’s unfair to project 20th-century hysteria and catastrophe back onto poor 19th-century Homer, but the almost comically extreme masculinity of the lifesavers makes “Undertow” an unfortunate prefiguration of familiar (kitsch) tropes of 20th-century totalitarian art.
Among the highlights of the show, for me, is the 1868 painting, “The Bridle Path, White Mountains,” a luminous, high-altitude vision set against haze and hot rock. It shows a young woman sitting sidesaddle on a white horse. The invisible trail connecting her with her riding companions, both far ahead and behind, forms a horseshoe shape, or a wave, cresting up close.
The formation itself implies the swell and recession of storytelling; no explicit narrative is needed. Lighted from behind, the woman is ours to observe but not to know: We have caught her in her solitude, expressionless, inviolate.
It’s a different story in “An October Day,” the show’s finest watercolor — although the composition is uncannily similar. In the foreground we see the head and antlers of a deer swimming across a lake in the Adirondack Mountains. Autumnal trees on the far slope are reflected in the lake’s placid waters.
But in the distance, to left and to right of the deer, are its enemies: a dog on the far shore, which has just chased the deer into the water, and a hunter, in a canoe, waiting to shoot.
This method of hunting, forcing the prey into water, was called “hounding,” and, like sharpshooting, a new practice during the Civil War which Homer also depicted, it was condemned at the time for its barbarism. The picture’s moral tension — innocence and beauty on the one hand, diabolical death on the other — was a Homer specialty.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.