High expectations may be difficult to meet, but Homer's works excel.
By PHILIP KENNICOTT
WASHINGTON -- The last major exhibition devoted to Winslow Homer at the National Gallery went head-to-head with the blockbuster Vermeer show and closed 29 days because of a blizzard and the great budget wrangling of 1995. But the gallery is back with another largish overview of the popular 19th-century American painter.
Perhaps we want too much of Homer. He seems the quintessential American painter, fashioning visions of the sea and hard-working men, domestic women and happy children lost in play. But wander through the three rooms of Homer's oil paintings, drawings and watercolors, and you have the sense that you could be anywhere. There is surprisingly little that is strikingly American about this artist generally assumed to be thoroughly representative of his country. He reveled in blank faces, and his interest in natural landscape was essentially painterly, a matter of adapting brush technique to things like sunsets and grass and the spray of water on a tormented sea. There's little real romance about a specifically American landscape or American character.
Perhaps that generic quality is part of Homer's quiet appeal. There is a consistent disengagement in his images that gives them the aura of classical depth and reserve. Women look to the side, into the distance or down to the ground. Rarely do their eyes meet the glance of the viewer. One of the most appealing images in this survey, an 1877 watercolor called "Blackboard," is a study in liquid blues and chilly grays, neutral in color, static in construction, passive in affect. A woman stands at a blackboard, pointing to geometric figures, but looking away -- not at her students, not at the viewer, just away, in a manner that suggests she's lost in time and space. It is the image chosen by the gallery for the large banner advertising the show, and it's easy to see why. The painting has polish, and it's utterly empty. Perfect for a poster on the wall of a college dorm room.
Men seldom confront the viewer either, though their gaze is safely channeled into the appurtenances of masculine business and power. Sailors are preoccupied with a sextant; a Civil War sharpshooter peers down the barrel of a gun. And children are even more remote in their depiction. Often, Homer paints them with faces entirely hidden by large hats, or with faces turned away, or concentrated on some game. In one of his most popular images, of a line of boys playing a game called snap the whip, we finally see unobscured human faces -- but they're all a bit lumpy, stupid and cretinous, which is a form of emptiness in itself.
Nature is his interest, and it's a relief that Homer's nature is not the grand, iconic nature of the Hudson River school painters. His happiest watercolors are about water itself, the crash of waves and the glassy surface of a lake caught at the moment between dusk and nightfall when everything is hushed and flat and as reflective as a mirror.
It would be interesting to see his works next to those that were shown in the Frederic Remington show at the gallery two years ago. Remington, younger than Homer by a quarter-century but still very much a contemporary (they knew each other, and their works appeared in the same magazines), infuses his paintings with a spirit definitely more "American" than Homer's. Both Remington and Homer paint images of lonely hunters or fishermen in canoes on lakes humming with the insects of twilight, but Homer does it better. And despite Remington's best efforts to make a dynamic image, nothing he paints has the energy and pure joy of movement of "Breezing Up," one of Homer's best-loved sea images.
So Homer never says much, and he's decidedly a centrist in the view of America he presents. But there is at least one little cry of conscience here that adds depth to one's sense of the man. Accompanying one of his Civil War images is a wall text giving us Homer's thoughts on the deadly skill of military sharpshooters: "The ... impression struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of," he wrote of the mechanical, precise killing at a distance.
This quaint little qualm about killing is apparent in perhaps the most memorable of this exhibition's images, "Right and Left," from 1909, a year before Homer died at 74. It shows two ducks, captured the moment after the blast of a hunter's gun. But it is seen from the opposite of the hunter's perspective, from a vantage point that puts the ducks in the foreground and the killer far in the distance. It's an impossible image, capturing a moment between life and death from a place no eye would ever be, and perhaps it is also aiming at something equally impossible: empathy with the mute creatures of nature. It was Homer's last great painting, and it suggests a direction in his work toward something palpably moral in quality, which makes this often bland painter worth a second look.