A Solitary Man: Winslow Homer found his subject in nature
Like the rugged men and robust woman he often portrayed, artist Winslow Homer survived all manner of storms. The hardy, outdoor types who populated his paintings, drawings, watercolors, etchings, magazine illustrations, and the like between 1857 and 1909 endured ocean squalls, shipwrecks, gales along both sandy and rocky coasts, shark attacks, undertows, fog warnings, and other distress signals. Homer’s adversities were both literal and figurative. Living beginning in 1882 for almost three decades on Prout’s Neck, a spit of land on the Atlantic Ocean near Portland, Maine, Homer saw his fair share of intemperate conditions and outlasted the winds of fashion and taste. For a century, his reputation has been untouched by the popularity of home-grown styles, such as the Ash Can School and American Regionalism, as well as Europe’s modern movements, including Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, not to mention the golden age of abstraction and the rise of Pop Art and Conceptualism here and abroad. Indeed, his work is as popular today as it has always been.
Homer convincingly rendered scenes of life-threatening moments whose outcomes were unresolved. Would the woman tethered to a lifeline make it to safety? Would sharks devour the black sailor on the small boat whose mast has broken off? Besides superbly modeling his figures, the Downeast artist generally put them in the foregrounds of his pictures, making them even more immediate. However, to remind his viewers that this was art, he incorporated passages of lush oil pigments that are decidedly non-representational. If it weren’t for the old-fashioned attire, wooden boats and canoes, and other details of the period, it would be hard to date his works. While a fox about to be attacked by ravens resembles the animals depicted by Gustave Courbet, the mid-19th-century realist whose winter scenes Homer would have known, a yelping dog calls to mind Eric Fischl, whose canvases of the late 20th-century were off in the future.
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