An eye for the telling moment
Portland Museum of Art celebrates the centenary of Winslow Homer
PORTLAND, Maine — Winslow Homer died 100 years ago. The Portland Museum of Art, which is 12 miles from Prouts Neck, where Homer spent the fertile second half of his career, is marking the centenary with a small but captivating display of Homer’s paintings, prints, and drawings, all drawn from the museum’s collection.
Given Homer’s preeminence in American art and his abiding popularity, which seems to unite both conservative and avant-garde tastes with its full-throated and enduring freshness, it is surprising that the centenary is not being marked by a more ambitious loan exhibition. But this country’s major museums, caught up as they are in renovations and recession-related retrenchments, have an air of distraction about them right now. And so it seems that any more expansive examination of Homer’s place in our hearts 100 years after his death will have to wait. (The state of Maine, however, is doing its best to compensate, with a series of displays of Homer works at such museums as the Farnsworth Art Museum, Saco Museum, and Colby College Museum of Art, pulled, in most cases, from their permanent collections.)
The Portland Museum of Art, which has impressive holdings of Homer and intimate links with the artist (he exhibited with the institution, known then as the Portland Society of Art, in 1893), could hardly neglect the occasion. But it is immersed in its own renovations — in this case, gratifyingly, of Homer’s Prouts Neck studio, which the museum acquired in 2006, and which it plans to open to the public in September 2012.
The Portland show, “Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place,’’ consists of four oils, 12 watercolors, and a handful of prints and drawings. One of the paintings is “Sharpshooter,’’ reckoned to be Homer’s earliest effort in oils, and still one of his most celebrated. This haunting Civil War image of a Union army marksman perched in a tree preparing to deliver death to an unwitting victim is a small, clear-eyed work entirely devoid of military bombast. In fact, it has the look of a photograph taken by a camera with a zoom: indeterminate viewpoint, subject caught unawares, decisive moment.
Homer was a witness to the Civil War. He provided illustrations to Harper’s Weekly magazine from Virginia during the fall campaign of 1861, and he returned there during the siege of Yorktown the following spring. “He suffered much,’’ wrote his mother that summer, “was without food 3 days at a time & all in camp either died or were carried away with typhoid fever. . . . He came home so changed that his best friends did not know him.’’
“Sharpshooter’’ was painted the following year, and it was followed by a wood engraving of the same subject published in Harper’s. Trained snipers were a new phenomenon in warfare, made possible by rifles fitted with long-tube telescopic sights. Most people at the time considered them heroes of the war effort. But the idea of delivering death in such a cold-blooded manner horrified Homer.
In a letter written in his old age, he wrote: “I looked through one of their rifles once.’’ The experience, he said, “struck me as being as near murder as anything I ever could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service.’’ In the same letter, to demonstrate his point, he included a little drawing of a soldier seen in the crosshairs of a telescope. Beneath it he scrawled — as if channeling Goya’s “Yo lo vi’’ (“I saw it’’) in the “Disasters of War’’ etchings — “This is what I saw.’’
“Sharpshooter’’ is sturdily composed. In fact, the picture is as fastidiously balanced as the Union soldier in his high perch, readying himself to pull the trigger. To the right in the picture, the trunk of the tree is crossed at right angles by the long, heavy muzzle of the benchrest rifle. A robust diagonal weave of limbs, torso, and tree branches balances out the picture on the left.
Much has been made of the tension between Homer’s cool observation of the marksman and the heightened drama of the moment. But to my mind, a good portion of the picture’s impact comes from the way our own view of the marksman exactly echoes his view of his target.
There’s a kind of visual tautology at work. Just as the soldier is silently eyeing his victim, we have a similarly privileged view of him. He is totally unaware of our presence, just as his victim is oblivious of him. Indeed, if only we had a gun, everything about the picture’s balance, and the sharpshooter’s frightful power and authority, would tumble like a house of cards.
Such is the arbitrary nature not only of modern war, but of modern power, too, enhanced by powerful new technologies (from telescopes to satellites, from rifles to nuclear missiles) but profoundly destabilized by them, too.
I have focused on “Sharpshooter’’ because “Poetics of Place’’ is the kind of intimate, slow-paced show that encourages long looking. Two other oils in the show — the sardonic “Artists Sketching in the White Mountains’’ from 1868 and “Weatherbeaten’’ (1894), one of Homer’s great images of crashing surf and rocks — reward similarly prolonged attention, and they have been given it in the fine catalog essay by the museum’s chief curator, Thomas Andrew Denenberg.
The brilliant images in watercolor of fishermen’s wives carrying heavy loads in the English village of Cullercoats are also hard to overlook. Such heft and solidity! Drawing on Millet’s farm laborers, they also anticipate the heroic female workers who would later become a staple of Soviet Socialist Realism. Several superb watercolors of men in canoes on the lakes and rivers of the Adirondacks remind us why Homer is considered the greatest of all American watercolorists.
But — perhaps because “Sharpshooter’’ had predisposed me toward morbid subjects — I found myself drawn to two images involving dead animals. The first, an oil painting called “Wild Geese in Flight,’’ shows three heavy geese struggling to achieve liftoff over shrub-tousled dunes. But the focus of the composition, in the lower foreground, is a tableau of two dead geese, wings splayed, necks curved sinuously on the sand.
It’s unclear if the dead birds have been shot from the sky by an unseen “sharpshooter,’’ or if, instead, they have had an unfortunate encounter with a lighthouse (the picture’s first owner insisted that its original title was “At the Foot of the Lighthouse’’). Either way, it’s a marvelously audacious painting. There’s something unaccountably stirring about the scale and sheer presence of these birds (not unlike the Cullercoats fishermen’s wives). Their feathered torsos and velvety necks feel plump and palpable against the scuzzy brown sky, the tawny sand, and the scraggly low bushes. It’s a painting Gustave Courbet might have envied.
The second image of death is a watercolor from 1891 called “Guide Carrying a Deer.’’ Set in the Adirondacks, it shows a strapping, fresh-faced boy standing with monumental composure near the center of the image, against a backdrop of mountain slopes. He looks off with far-seeing eyes, one boot firmly planted on the stump of a felled tree.
The whole image is rich with detail, with harmonious colors, and with a breathable sense of moist, cool mountain air. There’s something especially wonderful about the way the two deer legs by which the boy grips the dead animal form a slender, undulating line behind him, like a scarf he is in the process of wrapping around his neck.
This, I think, was what Homer did best: make heavy, physically impressive things almost shockingly intimate and close.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.