WINSLOW HOMER (1836-1910), though trained entirely in American schools, was big enough in spirit to grasp the great essentials of true art and give to the world an art that appeals to humanity. Old ocean was never lashed to canvas in his moods of fury until Homer bound him. At first he used the angry or sullen waves as simple settings for scenes somewhat anecdotal in character but always human in interest. In the “Fog Warning” (Fig. 32), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the boatman is one of that company of “shipmen who had knowledge of the sea.” The man shows no hurrying born of fear in the long sweep of the steady arms, nor yet does he ignore the danger of fog and storm his courage, born of experience, is cautious, steady and enduring.
We are becoming so accustomed to thinking of Winslow Homer as the painter of the ocean that we feel a little surprised when we see his other pictures. The surprise, however, is an exceedingly pleasant one in the Layton Gallery, Milwaukee, Wis., where the picture is “Hark, the Lark!” (Fig. 33). The charm of the ocean is in it the salt air, the stiff breeze, the sand dunes, but above all the free life of the fisher folk. Yes, I know there is the sad story of those who follow the sea, but people who stop at the song of the lark are not all sadness. What eager comely faces these young women have, and how far removed from the peasant folk of the old world! Native-born American women are these toilers, with aspirations that lift their souls to the heights and make of drudgery something more than simply existing. Surely Wordsworth’s words would find a response in the hearts of these three.
“Up with me ! up with me into the clouds ! For thy song, Lark, is strong; Up with me, up with me into the clouds ! Singing, singing, With clouds and sky above thee ringing, Lift me, guide me till I find That spot which seems so to thy mind !”
It was not unusual for Homer to see pictures in the homely scenes of the farm, particularly when it was a simple, usual occurrence in the life of a half-grown boy. In the “Unruly Calf” (Fig. 34), Institute of Arts and Sciences, Brooklyn, how well Homer under-stood that no animal is more likely to take a sudden stand for no earthly reason than a half-grown calf particularly a pet one and that no brute, for its size, can be more firmly rooted to the ground. Its four legs are so many posts set to brace each other. Why the animal stops no one can tell. It is sheer stupidity, I suspect. The boy may pull and twist at the rope with all his strength ; but what cares that big-eyed quadruped for a rope around his neck? The scene is delicious in its entire truth to nature. The atmosphere of the country is perfect; the disgust of the boy and the contrariness of the calf are simply bits of real life that make us forget everything but the outcome of the struggle between the two. Homer knew that especial episode well ; perhaps he knew the very negro boy who was sent to bring the calf home. The whiff of the country that such a picture brings is a veritable tonic to tired bodies and fagged brains.
We realise, however, that Homer knew the ocean as few people knew it. His home for years was Scarboro, Me., out on a spit of land where the sight and sound of the ocean were ever present. Here he made those stupendous masterpieces of old ocean veritable portraits of the mighty deep “where the floods lift up their waves.” We unconsciously draw our cloaks closer as we look at the “Northeaster” (Fig. 35), Metropolitan Museum of Art. The spray dashing against the brown-black rocks fairly strikes our faces and the great breaking wave is bound to overwhelm us. What a restless, resistless force is moving those mighty waters! The swish of the spray and the roar of the breakers fill our ears as we drink in the grandeur of the scene.
The ocean became more and more the real theme of Homer’s paintings, yet he never lost sight of its relationship to man. The artist’s heart was big with human sympathy, and not even constant communion with the roar of waters in his home on the Maine coast could make him forget the fisher folk who dwell by the sea. And how marvellous his insight into the heart qualities that made possible such a scene as “The Gale” (Fig. 36), Worcester (Mass.) Art Museum. That strong, fearless woman, like a young lioness in its native forest, moves along the rock-bound coast confident in her power yet watchful of the ever-changing and merciless monsters pitted against each other. The awful noise of the bellowing wind and roaring water would terrorise a landsman, but not so this child of the sea. Her ears are accustomed to the angry growl of the elements. She is concerned only in the safety of her little one. Her mother-instinct responds to the exhilaration of conquering opposing forces. The wide-eyed child knows no fear.
It is not surprising that “The Gale” won a gold medal at the Chicago World’s Vair in 1893, and yet the artist’s modest price of fifteen hundred dollars was reduced to the pitiful sum of seven hundred and fifty dollars before it found a purchaser. And now, less than a quarter of a century later, the Worcester Art Museum paid to Snedecor and Company, New York City, approximately thirty thousand dollars the highest price ever paid for an American picture by an American artist for this masterpiece that belongs to the ages. The pity of it is that, as from time immemorial, master-artists still have little financial benefit from their works. Who is to blame?
“The Wreck” (rig. 37), Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pa., American in setting, has the spirit of the follow-the-sea-folk that Homer put into his earlier works. The merciless power of the ocean is the underlying theme, yet the unflinching courage of the life-saving crew is the human element that holds us. Again we feel that Homer’s profound reverence for the mighty waters that cover the deep was sweetened by his great sympathy with humanity. A man of strong imagination, tempered by a self-control that gripped him, he centred his art on a broad and wholesome understanding of man’s strength and nature’s powers.
We might almost call the “Sunlight on the Beach” (Fig. 38) the “Home-coming.” The steamer steadily nearing the port speaks volumes; the joy of the home-coming is in the glad sunlight that sparkles on the dark green waters around it and dissipates the mist of the land storm sweeping out to sea. How the petty and mean sink out of sight in this glorious picture! Homer’s interpretation of the mighty deep is a revelation. We feel that its majesty and power reflect the One “who hath measured the waters in the hollow of His hand.”
And the “Coming Storm” (Fig. 39), Lotos Club, New York City, is another phase of the troubled waters as distinctive as a real storm always is. How these fisher-folk must feel every turn of the wind, every piling of the clouds, every tumbling of the waves, knowing that their loved ones are at the mercy of these untamed monsters ! Into their hearts must come “Peace, be still,” of far off Galilee, with a new meaning.
There is no question about Winslow Homer standing for American art. It was his picture in Paris in 1900 that compelled foreigners to note the fact that he was more than an American painter. It was then that just a faint suggestion entered the minds of Europeans that America might have an art of its own in time. Were it not for the stupidity of it, the idea for it is now only an idea that we have no art would be amusing. Yet it still clings to the minds of some of our own people, as well as to those of our contemporaries across the water. Our artists are something like the children who, in their parents’ eyes, never grow up. But why even mention a circumstance so far in the past and especially when discussing paintings by Winslow Homer ?