Hardly any consequential painters today are what one would properly call Tens of thousands of tourist-shop pictures and hours of televised lessons on palette-knife tricks have forced impasto'd pounding waves to break mostly over the hobbyist's couch. But in Winslow Homer's time (late 19th century) and place (the coast of Maine) seascapes could be magnificent hybrids of the motionless land a painter rendered from sight, and the churning, changing sea he essentially had to paint from imagination. The mature Homer--who'd been a public favorite his whole career but who resented things like jury duty and withdrew from city life--was drawn to the seascape's compositional simplicity: dulled white foam, slate sky, undulating bluegreen water. dark alistenine rocks. With these ingredients Homer painted a passion play of immutable force against abiding object, of humanity (albeit often offstage) against nature, and, as it turned out, of American pragmatism against the intellectualism of European art.
Homer's 15-year finale and its effect on the next generation of American painters is the subject of The Cleveland Museum of Art's superb exhibition "Reckoning with Winslow Homer: His Late Paintings and Their Influence," continuing through Nov. 25 before traveling to Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. Its 15 Homer oils and 44 paintings by Homer devotees document the struggle between an American realism and the modernism wafting in from across the Atlantic. (Actually there's a Homer bonanza these days, with Chicago's Terra Museum of American Art offering both "Winslow Homer in Gloucester" and "Winslow Homer in the 1890s: Prout's Neck Observed," on view through Dec. 30 and Jan. 13, respectively.)
Born in 1836, Homer apprenticed at 19 to a Boston lithographer and, four years later, left to seek his fortune as an artist in New York. By his mid-20s he was supporting himself as an illustrator. In 1861 Harper's Magazine appointed Homer a war correspondent and he secured his reputation with drawings of McClellan's disastrous peninsula campaign. But when the Civil War was over and America became increasingly industrial, many of its writers (Mark Twain in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer") and poets (John Greenleaf Whittier with "The Barefoot Boy") longed for what they saw as a simpler, less cosmopolitan and more moral antebellum life. Homer, who traveled abroad only twice, shared the sentiment. During a trip to England in 1881 he isolated himself in northern Tynemouth where the sea impressed him more than ever as a cruel, primal force of nature. When his mother died in 1884, Homer moved to the family compound in secluded Prout's Neck. He would show up from his winter escapes to Florida or Bermuda as early as March and work through the first heavy snowstorm in December, often in a portable studio on runners (with a door on one side and a plateglass window on the other), which could protect him from wind, spray and any possible kibitzers. He replied to a Chicago gallery offering him a solo show: "At present and for some time past I see no reason why I should paint any pictures ... P.S. I will paint for, money at any time. Any subject, any size."
With few friends and no students or apprentices, Homer the cantankerous bachelor was nevertheless the most influential American painter of his generation, just ahead of Albert Pinkham Ryder. Artists pilgrimaged to his turf to get the "Maine experience" and to paint their own versions of his quintessential 1896 seascape, "The Northeaster." Robert Henri led the pack, which included his disciples George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, George Luks and John Sloan. "If you want to do a great sea," Homer told the young painter Leon Kroll, "use only two waves."
After their immersions in Homer, Bellows went back to New York and turned the struggle against the sea into a metaphor for the excavations for the new Penn Station while Hopper, in "The Camel's Hump" (1931), let the land roll like a Homer wave. Marsden Hartley, who saw the "stiff tone of death in every wave," navigated his seascapes through the aftermath of The Armory Show. That 1913 watershed exhibition--which included Matisse and Picasso and was seen by 80,000 people during its three-week run in New York--split progressive American artists into warring camps. Realists like Bellows bent with the times but tried to maintain an American straightforwardness, modernists like Hartley and John Marin threw in with cubism. Both groups, however, retained the vitality of Homer's seascapes, which curator Bruce Robertson calls the "conservative rendering of the impulses pushing more adventurous artists to abstraction." As for Homer himself (who died in 1910), his friend and biographer William Howe Downes concluded that he was "all his life more or less of a problem, even to the friends who thought they knew him best. "
If modern art is, as many still think, nothing but a race to see who can get the furthest out the fastest, then Homer's late works and the paintings they influenced are merely quaint in-betweens, like steam-engined automobiles. But if what's inside the frame counts, instead of merely a picture's position on some flow chart of radicalism (where Duchamp is always ahead of everybody, before or since), then the paintings in Cleveland are vibrantly up to date. American realism at the turn of the century was a tough, puritanical position, enamored of earth but not dirt, smitten with love but not sex. In was ultimately romantic (in its desire for purity) and found its finest champion in Homer and, to a lesser degree, his descendants. If this show doesn't send your artistic spirits soaring, it will at least firm them up, on solid American ground.