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Around New England: The Soul of Winslow Homer

December 17, 2013 03:56 PM  

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Winslow Homer, bronze bas-relief by Leonard Baskin

A 12-by-8Ĺ-inch bas-relief I came across in an antique shop in Thomaston, Maine, was not to be mine. (It was priced at $3,500, so no thought of my ever owning it.) But I was haunted by the seeming collusion of two geniuses of American art in this small piece.

Winslow Homerís place in the pantheon of American artists seems forever secure. The young Bostonian made his name as a war correspondent for Harperís Magazine during the Civil War. Afterward, Homer painted Tom Sawyer-like boys playing snap the whip or pretty young women doing farm chores or promenading along the beach beneath parasols ó an attempt to regain a lost national innocence or a sublimation of seen war horrors? Homer also was an amazing water colorist, depicting hunters in the Adirondacks or tropical scenes in the Bahamas.

But it was Homerís later paintings of the sea that define his greatness. Despite having spent time in Paris at the time of French Impressionism, Homer settled in Maine where he depicted an increasingly menacing world. Living hermitlike in a studio at Proutís Neck, he painted seascapes that are not pretty images of ocean side vacations. Rather, they relay the elemental forces of the sea, its dangers, and its sublime mystery. Homerís brilliant compositions show Yankee fishermen engaged in a life and death struggle against nature. The odds, for example, are stacked against fogbound Gloucester dories or a fox struggling through snow trying to escape a flock of killer crows. Homerís canvases eventually ceased to have any people in them at all, showing only the vastness, power, and loneliness of the sea itself; they are quantum leaps beyond Moby Dick, Herman Melvilleís anti-Transcendental screed, and are more visceral, more frightening.

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Winslow Homer, On A Lee Shore, 1900, Rhode Island School of Design Art Museum

Homerís dark psyche was captured in Baskinís bronze. The famous printmaker, sculptor, and Smith College professor was no stranger to Manís darker nature. Spanning a career over the second half of the 20th century, Baskin (1922-2000) never abandoned the human figure. His often-troubled subjects ó Medea, Williams Blake, predatory birds, and the like ó were drawn from the Bible, the classics, or Shakespeare. Homer would have recognized the existential angst in Baskinís gloomy portraits.

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Winslow Homer, detail

In the eyes of the Homer totem, Baskin offered up a taste of the brutal lives faced by tough people surviving in a harsh land. In doing so, he built upon a 300-year-old tradition of uncompromising New England portraiture, some of which can be found just by wandering early graveyards.

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Photo by William Morgan

Gravestone of Ephraim Barrett, 1745-1771, Concord, Massachusetts.

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About this blog

An insider's look at must-have products, fresh trends, and inspired spaces from the team at Design New England magazine.

Gail Ravgiala is editor of Design New England and a fan of both the region's historic architecture and its growing inventory of modern houses and public buildings.

Courtney Kasianowicz is associate editor of Design New England who scouts the area for new design, charming products, and local artisans both innovative and daring.

Jill Connors, Design New England's editor-at-large, is an antiques maven and design scout and will post about trends and discoveries in the field.

Bruce Irving, Design New England's contributing editor for architecture & building, is a renovation specialist who will share his insights on design and construction.

Estelle Bond Guralnick, Design New England's style & interiors editor, will post about interior design and interior designers and her favorite finds.

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