Museum of Fine Arts

St. Petersburg, FL



The Art of American Life: Winslow Homer's Graphics (1857-1877)


Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is one of America' s most beloved artists. His watercolors, oil paintings, prints, and illustrations are full of the .American spirit. They range from tranquil scenes in the country to both men and women struggling against the forces of nature to some of the most compelling images created during and about the Civil War.

The Art of American Life: Winslow Homer's Graphics (1857-1877) is set for November 7- January 30, 2000 and opens the same day as Robert Gwathmey: Master Painter. The Homer show, sponsored in part by the City of St. Petersburg, presents approximately fifty of the 100 wood engravings donated to the Museum by David S. Hendrick III. His gift was made in honor of Registrar Margarita G. Laughlin, who has been with the MFA for twenty-eight years. (left: A Bivouac Fire on the Potomac, from Harper's Weekly, Dec. 28, 1861, wood engraving, Gift of David S. Hendrick III)

This donation includes the illustrations Homer produced for such leading periodicals as Harper's Weekly, Harper's Bazaar, and Appleton's Journal and for collections of poetry by James Russell Lowell and William Barnes. James Russell Lowell's The Courtin' is the most significant book he illustrated, and there are examples of that work in this show.

The Art of American Life is organized by themes and generally follows Homer's early career chronologically. The first section examines his early figuraI and compositional style, with the works looking at leisure activities and urban life. It also includes his first prints for Harper's Weekly. The second section focuses on the Civil War and the third on the country in the process of healing after that wrenching conflict. Among these prints are those of women bathing and enjoying the countryside and others like Making Hay, 1872, that extol rural life. Still others, like Clam-Bake, 1873, revolve around children. The final section presents Homer as an illustrator of books, stories, and poems. (right: Corner of Winter, Washington and Summer Streets, Boston, from Ballou's, June 13, 1857, wood engraving, Gift of David S. Hendrick III)

According to Jennifer Hardin, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, "we are thrilled to have the first examples of Homer's art in our collection. He remains one of the most important nineteenth-century American artists. We are grateful to Mr. Hendrick for donating such an extensive selection that allows us to demonstrate the range of Homer's work in the print medium." A free brochure, with an introduction by Ms. Hardin, will be available to visitors.


About Winslow Homer

At the end of his life, Homer predicted that he would "live by his watercolors." Yet, early in his career, prints were a significant part of his work. Largely self-taught, Homer, at nineteen, became an apprentice at the lithographic firm of J.H. Bufford in Boston and when he left at 21, he began to create prints for the noted Boston weekly Ballou's Pictoral Drawing-Room Companion.

In this exhibition, there is an early Homer depiction of a busy Boston intersection from that magazine (1857). A woman in a long dress is nearly trampled by a horse-drawn carriage charging forward at high speed. The article begins: "The local view upon this page, drawn expressly for us by Mr. Winslow Homer, a promising young artist of this city, is exceedingly faithful in architectural detail and spirited in character, and represents one of the busiest and most brilliant spots in all Boston."

These prints, then, are rich in history and accuracy. Along with the photographer Mathew Brady, Homer produced some of the most revealing images of the Civil War. Homer traveled to the Virginia front for Harper's Weekly, made many sketches, and then completed the illustrations in New York.

Characteristically, his visual "reports" from the camps are direct, have great integrity, and definitely do not glorify war. The War for the Union, A Bayonet Charge, 1862, captures the brutality of hand-to-hand combat and reminds us of how incredibly violent that conflict was and how many lives were lost. Such an outstanding print and others from this time presage one of his early, great paintings Prisoners from the Front, 1866, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Army of the Potomac, A Sharp Shooter on Picket Duty, 1862, is vivid in its detail. As he remains on alert in a tree, the soldier rests his rifle on a branch, while his canteen hangs from another limb. A Bivouac Fire in the Potomac, 1861, shows two African Americans entertaining the Union soldiers. One dances in the center, spotlighted by the truly wondrous light of this campfire, with another playing the fiddle to the side. One soldier has fallen asleep against another's leg. Even photographs have rarely captured such intimate wartime moments.

The distinguished scholar Dr. John Wilmerding has written that in his approach to the Civil War, Homer, along with Brady and the writers Stephen Crane and Walt Whitman, among others, belonged to a "generation of artists...creating new modes of expression. If anything, the Civil War made them, and Homer especially, aware both of man's humanity and his mortality."

Other prints reflect fashions and social mores and customs. For example, Opening Day in New York from Harper's Bazaar focuses on fashionable women crammed into a department store and Our Watering Places shows the leisure classes enjoying what for the majority was then a luxury, time away from the heavy responsibilities of work and family. Several of these prints also illustrate Homer's early interest in drawing more aristocratic women. Later, he would turn to the stronger, earthier women living off the land or in fishing villages. Homer is perhaps best known for his watercolors and paintings of people in the midst of nature, and some of these early engravings point in that direction. The ominous rocks, even more than the waves, dominate in The Wreck of the "Atlantic," Cast up by the Sea, 1873, and dramatically illustrate nature's destructive capacity and its ultimate power over human life.

Homer's preoccupation with survival in nature would become even more pronounced when he moved to the English fishing village of Cullercoats and in his later years, to Prout's Neck, Maine. In fact, the crags in Cast up by the Sea, bring to mind the rocky coast of Homer's final home and perhaps are a visualization of mortality itself. The woman in the print lies on the shore clutching a rope intended to be her lifeline, while a rugged man, face downcast, mourns nearby.

Again, Dr. Wilmerding has observed that "these parallel interests in the evolution of man and his environment receive fitting visual expression in Homer's mature art, which holds the human and natural worlds in such heroic balance."

Unlike many artists of his day who used illustration to earn money on the way to producing "fine art," Homer remained attached to prints even after he began to earn fame as a painter. Late in life, he also turned to etching, again producing outstanding images, and during his senior years, he had more works in public collections than any other living American artist.


About the Donor

David S. Hendrick III has been one of the Museum's most generous donors of American art. Among his many gifts are the Frederick W. MacMonnies bronze Young Faun and Heron, 1890; lithographs by James Abbott McNeill Whistler; and wood engravings by Albert Bierstadt and John LaFarge. He has also given the Museum illuminated manuscripts from fourteenth to sixteenth-century Europe, a Sir Edward Burne-Jones drawing Sketch for Gorgon for the Perseus series, and engravings by Nicolas Delaunay (after Fragonard).

"It is especially fitting that David Hendrick, who has given so many significant works to this Museum, has donated the Homer prints in honor of Margarita Laughlin," said Museum Director Michael Milkovich. "Both have contributed so much to this institution. Margarita is only the second registrar in the Museum's history and has had the longest tenure, by far."

revised 10/23/99

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 11/1/10

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