winslow homer -- 9/9/22

Today's selection -- from Inventing the Modern Artist by Sarah Burns. In the late 1800s, critics were concerned that American art did not reflect the robust spirit of the country. One notable exception was the art of Winslow Homer:

"Even though American artists had with considerable success colonized the fem­inine and naturalized aestheticism, some critics found much of contemporary art weak and inadequate to the spirit of modern America. As a Harper's editorial put it, 'It is a period of refinement and decoration, in which the how is more important than the what .... It is a day of little masters, of the art that seeks effect but feels nothing, of small and exquisite things ... of the dainty representation of our own small ideas.' Regarding the work of Childe Hassam and other impressionists, C. Lewis Hind mused that one of the 'curiosities of art' was that a young, vigorous nation should run into such 'fragile, dainty ways of portraying nature.' Some paint­ers, like Gari Melchers, were sufficiently virile yet too cosmopolitan to be truly American, and neither the 'tender femininity of Twachtman' nor the 'pretty mon­daines of Dewing' qualified as expressions of genuine, native feeling. In the work of Winslow Homer, however, were signs of a true national art, produced by a man who lived in solitude, 'surrounded by the elemental forces of nature.' His art was the 'big, comprehensive work' that was 'entirely personal and entirely American.' 

"Size and power in late-nineteenth-century America were intimately and intricately connected. As many have noted, this was the age of bigness: in business, in scale, in expansion, in material superfluity, in social inequities, even in bodies, both metaphorical and real. Looking back with fascination and distaste on the 'Brown De­cades' of recent memory, Lewis Mumford endorsed Vernon Parrington's 'particularly good' grasp of the period's physiognomy, the 'obese and bloated mas­ters' of postbellum America. Added Mumford, 'Even the best men conformed to the mold. (Architect H. H.) Richardson's bulky figure, to say nothing of his huge traveling companions, attracted the attention of European gamins, who thought they belonged to a circus: once they asked outright -- When is the dwarf coming?' Mum­ford and Parrington were clearly ambivalent about such excess, which to their gen­eration had come to symbolize the corruption, mammonism, and spiritual bankruptcy of the age. During that earlier time, however, bigness was synonymous with the spirit of American energy and progress, driven forward by the engines of large-scale com­merce, finance, and industry. The men who guided those engines had to match them in size and force. As the president of the American Radiator Company said, there was a need for men with 'big imaginations' who could conceive and plan 'big things' for the business world.

Winslow Homer, 1880;
photo by Napoleon Sarony (1821–1896)

"As Bruce Robertson has shown, 'big' and its synonyms (along with 'virile') appeared in writings about Homer and his art with striking frequency at about the tum of the century, when the artist's reputation was on the ascent to the pinnacle of all-American greatness. This was almost entirely the construction of his admir­ers. Orson Lowell's enthusiastic response to Homer's Canadian fishing scenes is typical. Homer already ranked as one of 'our strongest painters,' but there was a great deal more to it than that: 'By "strong" I do not mean merely as a painter and draftsman .... His things show the big, big-hearted man; they are painted, in whatever the medium, with a confident fearlessness and an almost brutal strength. I used always to think of the author of the Homer pictures as a giant, or as a man with at least hands boisterously big and having no patience with petty details. Go­ing into the small Knoedler gallery with this idea of the man, one is not at all dis­appointed, but surprised, feeling that he never knew how big and how fearless and how masterly.' Any photograph would instantly deflate Lowell's overblown vision: no ham-handed colossus, Homer was small, neat, and wiry. His paintings are not big, either, in physical dimensions: compared with any typical French history painting -- Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, say (1819; Musee du Lou­vre, Paris) -- his canvases look puny. As critics saw them, though, they were big­ -- sometimes huge and vast -- in metaphorical terms. 'There is something rugged, austere, even Titanic in almost everything Homer has done,' declared Frederick W. Morton. 'His sea is the watery waste as the expression of tremendous force, mystery, peril.' Like other critics, Morton found Homer's sea poetry 'epic' in scope and scale, and he praised the artist for expunging the 'decorative beauty' from his compositions so severely that what remained was almost repellent: 'frankly ugly, austere even to the disagreeable.' In this austerity, though, lay Homer's compelling power, which in the public eye seemed to be the unmediated power of nature itself, unaestheticized. Homer's art was so big and natural that it scarcely belonged indoors; it was 'not calculated for the drawing-room,' as Cox put it. Frank Gunsaulus, owner of On a Lee Shore (c. 1900; Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence), observed whimsically that he felt the surging waters in the painting might at any moment overspill their boundaries and sweep him out of his house. Homer himself, isolated and remote, was as undo­mesticated as his pictures, as tough and weatherproof as the fishermen who bat­tled his stormy seas, or the hardy woodsmen who roamed his Adirondack wildernesses. He was a 'natural force rather than a trained artist,' a painter en­tirely self-taught and self-made. In his life and work, wrote Henry Reuterdahl, Ho­mer celebrated 'manly power, the beauty of man strong in will and muscle fighting the elements.'

"This Homer was largely a fiction. He himself referred to painting not as a struggle with the elements at all, but as a business, and his letters reveal a keen if cynical awareness of the importance of supply and demand in the art market. Ho­mer's attitude toward his trade seemed to develop as the painter aged, coinciding with the era of his greatest fame as America's most natural and least mercenary art worker. When J. Alden Weir invited him to join the Ten American Painters, Homer declined: 'You do not realize it, but I am too old for this work and I have already decided to retire from business at the end of the season.' He never did retire, though he occasionally threatened to do so over the next few years, and he never failed to acknowledge the vital connection between 'business' and income." 



Sarah Burns


Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America


Yale University


Copyright 1996 by Yale University


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment