Winslow Homer at the Clark
On Saturday, my parents and I took in the Clark Art Institute’s big summer exhibit, “Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History,” which showcases work from the artist’s 50-year career.
We’re big fans of Homer and we never miss the chance to see his work. Of course, Homer has lots of fans, which made for a fairly crowded exhibit. But our fandom is somewhat personal: My great-grandparents knew Winslow Homer, who stayed at the coastal hotel they owned before building his own studio down the road. My parents live in the house where my grandfather grew up, and we often walk on the beaches and rocks where Homer painted some of his most notable work. There’s more to Homer than Maine, though. He painted the Civil War, Key West, the Bahamas and numerous other places. But the images that tend to catch my eye are the ones that are most familiar: the summit of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, the Adirondacks, etc.
As I perused the Clark’s exhibit, I wondered what I would think of Homer if I had never visited any of the places in his paintings — if I didn’t have a personal connection to his work and his life. Would I still feel as strongly about him? My immediate reaction was: no. Because one of the things that makes Homer’s art compelling to me is how he takes places I know and love and makes something visceral and transcendent out of them.
As I wandered the Clark, I found myself drawn to paintings that depicted experiences I’ve never had. My favorite painting of all was “Undertow,” from 1886, of two strong and brawny men rescuing a pair of women from the sea. The image is fairly erotic, with Homer paying great attention to the bodies of the people in the painting. I also spent a long time looking at the Homer paintings that depict a time gone by, when people rode horses along the ridges in the White Mountains, and boys played nearly-forgotten games such as snap the whip, and women and men gathered at the beach (or on a mountain top) dressed in their finest clothes. What makes these paintings memorable isn’t the familiarity of the images, but rather their unfamiliarity: They provide an intriguing glimpse into the lives of our ancestors.
In general, the Homer pieces I like most are the ones that depict nature as a potentially dangerous force, indifferent to the worries and needs of everyday people. Many of these paintings are ominous, conveying a sense of dread. In “The Fog Warning,” a fisherman rows a small boat through turbulent waters, gazing at the dark clouds on the horizon; in “West Point, Prout’s Neck,” the surf crashes against the rocks, revealing the ocean’s power and capacity for violence. There is a vitality and timelessness to these paintings, and every time I look at them, I see something new.
Also worth a look is the Clark’s George Inness exhibit, which features 10 paintings by the 19th century artist, who specialized in ethereal landscapes. I especially enjoyed his 1892 painting “Home at Montclair,” because it makes New Jersey look like a beautiful place.
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