Art Review: ‘Winslow Homer: Eyewitness’ Show at Fogg Museum


Schooner at Sunset, 1880, by Winslow Homer. Transparent watercolor over graphite on off-white wove paper. (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.298. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.)

An excellent Fogg Museum show tells us media bias isn’t recent.

Winslow Homer: Eyewitness is the new show at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Mass., on the campus of Harvard. Homer (1836–1910) always keeps giving, and this is one measure of his greatness. On the one hand, he’s rooted in tradition. He’s a Hudson River School artist in his focus on landscape and seascape, though the show makes clear that he’s a formidable figure painter, too. On the other, he’s not only modern but also fresh and responsive to our times. The show serves nicely as a Homer primer, among its fascinating areas of focus.

This show is about the news business in the 1860s in America and the way it molded Homer’s style. Americans have always been news-obsessed. Even in the 1840s and 1850s, our mostly frontier country had thousands of newspapers. Then, technology changed the news business constantly, and that continues today. And as the show deftly notes, fake news was not an occasional problem so much as an inherent vice.

Whenever you look at art by Homer, it’s worth remembering that he became famous as a newspaper and magazine illustrator from the late 1850s through the 1870s. He was a star illustrator of the two marquee news magazines, Harper’s Weekly and Harper’s Monthly, before the technology of mass producing a photograph was developed. And what made him more famous is his coverage of the biggest news story in America: the Civil War.

The show is a good balance of illustrations, watercolors, paintings, and photographs, and they’re not only separate media but reinforcing ones. News from the War, a Homer illustration that appeared in June 1862, is one of the early works in the show. Yes, Homer was covering a grisly war, but the eternally narcissistic news business — reporters like nothing more than a story about themselves — could take time to celebrate its own acumen in getting good stories from the battlefield to the hearth.

News from the War, 1862. From Harper’s Weekly, June 14, 1862. After Winslow Homer, engraved by unidentified artist. Wood engraving and letterpress on off-white wove paper. (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Ted Stebbins, 2018.163. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.)

Homer is a designer of genius. It’s seven vignettes, so it’s complicated. He organizes it through effective black and white contrasts and a cunning talent for using passages of symmetry and asymmetry to keep things both lively and moving in a coherent way. News comes by letter, bugle, word of mouth, the new technology of railroads, and, emphatically, via the gutsy reporter, who happens to be Homer himself.

The reality is that reporters rarely got close to battle. They were as aggressively spun and massaged then as now by generals and politicians. Homer was no exception. Sitting on an empty barrel, though, the sketching Homer suggests that he was indeed a witness. As the public’s eyes and ears, he felt the sadness and enthusiasm of the war and was uniquely positioned to convey it. Newspaper wars in the 1860s were fierce, with major outlets such as Harper’s claiming that competitors published fake news — not only false news but news they invented — as opposed to Homer’s on-the-spot observation and drawing.

Rebels outside Their Works, also from 1862, goes a step further. Set in Yorktown, Homer’s illustration depicts Confederate soldiers prowling the front line at night, for both sharpshooting and spying. Homer excelled at heart-pumping drama. As the war reporter, he’s shining a light on what’s happening at the front as much as Confederates were using torches to gather an information advantage. He creates a documentary sense of “you are there.” That’s what every good reporter does.

Homer is at his most effective and most modern as a story-telling minimalist. He’s a great designer and organizer of groups, but his best illustrations are the simplest. Sometimes his minimalism was required. Most of the media turf wars occurred over word counts and column inches. Good stories could be told with brevity. Our Watering Places — The Empty Sleeve at Newport appeared in Harper’s Weekly in August 1865. The war had ended a few months before. The work illustrated a story about a young soldier who came back from the war to discover that in his absence his wife had learned to drive a buggy. It’s a sweet tale of women’s liberation.

Our Watering Places—The Empty Sleeve at Newport, 1865. From Harper’s Weekly, August 26, 1865. After Winslow Homer, engraved by unidentified artist. Wood engraving and letterpress on off-white wove paper. (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of W. G. Russell Allen, M9323. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.)

Looking at the illustration, though, one can quickly see that it oozes with anxiety. The brightest white is the woman’s face. That’s where the viewer goes because it’s so bright. Her expression tells us she’s determined but terrified, and her grip on the taut reins underscores the point. Her husband’s face is sunken. Both faces are partially shaded, telling us that some things are ambiguous or unseen. Then we focus on the empty sleeve. He’s come back disfigured, an amputee. Homer is at his best in conveying a big, universal story, filled with pathos, through the smallest detail or nuance. This couple has a lot more to get used to than the wife having learned to drive a buggy.

The scene is set in Newport, even then a glittering summer-vacation spot. It might surprise that he did so many scenes of everyday women’s lives since Homer was among the most alpha of male artists. He loved to fish and hunt, never married, and lived mostly in the company of rich men, but given these things, he was a canny interpreter of bourgeois leisure, and that includes women’s clothing and women’s activities. Harper’s wasn’t only a news periodical. It was a lifestyle publication, too. On the one hand, this couple seeks the normalcy of a Newport vacation, the first since the shooting stopped. On the other, for them, nothing will be normal again.

The art in the show is almost entirely from the Fogg’s collection. Homer is one of those rare artists who almost never had a bad day, so everything is good. If I had to name its biggest stars, though, I’d have to pick the six Homer watercolors from the Fogg’s Grenville Winthrop collection. Winthrop was one of New York’s greatest collectors. When he died in 1843, his collection came to the Fogg. The gift came with so many restrictions that these works, great American and European things, almost never leave the Fogg.

The Winthrop Homer watercolors are gorgeous. They’re joined by five other Homer watercolors, and these are rarely seen as well. Homer started making watercolors in 1873, inspired by their on-the-spot immediacy. By the mid 1860s, he was painting in oil, but watercolor allowed him to develop his knack for showing the single, ephemeral moment for aesthetic goals rather than a newspaper’s goal to report the stories of the day.

Canoe in Rapids, 1897, by Winslow Homer. Transparent watercolor and graphite on off-white wove paper. (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Louise E. Bettens Fund, 1924.30. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.)

All the watercolors in the show are from the 1880s and 1890s. His palette is so various, with citrus colors used for his Caribbean scenes to dull grays, greens, and blues of his wild Maine and Adirondack pictures. Canoe in Rapids, from 1897, is Homer at his essentialist best. The rough forest landscape, cold gray sky, and roiled water is a triumph of efficiency and directness, each element of nature reduced to essential qualities. It’s beautiful but far from pretty. In most of his watercolors, he shows a hard, rough world. Even when he peoples them, the figures are subordinated to a natural world that’s timeless, vast, and uncontrollable. Nature’s rarely decorative.

The show is worth seeing for two of the Winthrop watercolors. Schooner at Sunset and Sailboat and Fourth of July Fireworks are both from 1880, a year Homer painted sunset and nocturne watercolors, mostly in Gloucester, Mass. I’ve seen these two a few times over the years, only because I lived near Harvard when I was a museum director in Andover. They’re so exquisite, so sublime, packing a big punch in a small package. I think of them like a dog thinks of food, which is a lot.

Why are they in a show about Homer in the news? For very smart, subtle reasons. The heart, and art, of the news business is chasing and capturing instants in time. The things that change are the things we read a newspaper to learn. It’s why we check our news sites a dozen times a day. Fireworks are ephemeral, though the bangs and lights are big. Even a sunset changes from second to second, and we know a great sunset starts slowly, evolves, but then the sun drops like a stone.

There are only three or four oil paintings in the show. The most famous and one of only two loans is Prisoners at the Front, from 1866. At that point, Homer was starting to paint big studio oils and moving into the high-art world. This painting has the feel of a newspaper illustration, which isn’t a slight. Its figures are clearly defined. Its design is close to a frieze, and that’s part of his newspaper vocabulary. Illustrations in newspapers and magazines usually don’t have much depth. Depth and recession are distractions. Newspaper illustration, then news photography around 1900, and, now,…

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