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Winslow Homer

Text by Elizabeth Johns, introduction to "Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation"

[This book offers a fascinating pyscho-social biography of Winslow Homer. More than a biography, it offers much discussion of his art and his artistic motivations, along with outstanding quality reproductions. Highly recommended. I have excerpted the introduction to give you a good idea of the approach taken by the author. - MH]

"The sun will not rise or set without my notice, and thanks," Winslow Homer (1836-1910) wrote in 1895, out of gratitude for the rhythms of nature that had informed his pictures and his life. He was almost sixty years old. In his home by the ocean at Prout's Neck, Maine, he had observed for more than a decade the rising and setting sun, incoming and outgoing tides, and gathering and diminishing storms. In fact, he had been attentive to the world around him all his life, in the way that he lived and in what he chose to paint. From the beginning of his career, his admirers had praised him for "painting what he saw," which meant that they, too, saw what was critical to Homer and found these things important.

In this book, I examine the significance of "what Homer saw," not so much to the culture around him as to his own life in process. Viewers even slightly acquainted with his work know the general outlines of his career: Born in Boston, he began in 1857 as an illustrator of city and country activities for Harper's Weekly and moved to New York in 1859. In 1863 he learned to paint in oil and over the next few years created thought provoking figural scenes of the nation at war and then, after the war, of the middle class at leisure. In the 1870s he became a watercolorist of great power, focusing his attention on the natural world of sky and grass and water. After shifting his location from New York to New England in 1883, he spent the rest of his life creating stunning pictures of the ocean meeting the rocky shores of Prout's Neck, Maine.

Homer's pictures are always fresh, and his appeal as a person does not pale. His contemporarles wrote about him with varying degrees of puzzlement, enthusiasm, irritation, and, finally, exaltation. One hundred years later, in the flood of scholarship on American art, scholars have studied his formal design, his painting techniques, and the cultural contexts of his themes. They have speculated on his sexuality, found old master precedents for his pictorial structure, written about gender in his work, and even argued that he was a proto modernist. Despite these changing emphases, which reflect the course of art history as a field, Homer has consistently been typed as a "realist," "absolutely American," and "virile," and at the same time as "solitary' and "resolutely private."

Homer as the person who held the brush has been discussed somewhat superficially, as though living a life were one thing and painting another. It is almost as though, aside from cultural context, which is so often impersonal, scholars have given up as either irrelevant or unknowable Homer's own beliefs, perceptions, and social commitments. This book disputes the separation of life from art. It is true that Homer cherished his privacy. He refused near the end of his life to permit a devoted critic to write his biography, indicating that "it would probably kill me to have such a thing appear ... the most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public." Surely for Homer, I would argue, the most interesting part of his life was his interior journey a core of memories, desires, regrets, and hopes that nurtured him throughout his life. Informing these innermost concerns were the social and developmental challenges that attend every human undertaking, including the creating of art. Homer's challenges are ours, too. When we ponder his responses, he comes alive for us.

This study constructs the developmental path of Homer as a person and its materialization in his work as an artist. In using this approach to study Homer, I am indebted to the work of Erik Erikson and his followers on identity and the life cycle. Erikson and others who have probed the developmental and psychosocial dimensions of human experience have concluded that we shape our identity in our relationships with others through a process of continuous psychic integration. During our lifetime we develop, test, confirm, and reconfirm or perhaps cannot important psychic strengths: trust, in infancy; autonomy, in childhood; secure identity, in adolescence; competence and the capacity for intimacy, in young adulthood; concern for the development of the next generation, in mature adulthood; and wisdom, in old age. We achieve these ways of being and acting in a complex network of ever widening social experience to which we contribute: who we are in our family; who we are as individuals in a larger social environment; what our work will be and, once we have chosen it, how we fare in it; whether we will marry, and what that choice will mean in relation to the paths of the older and younger generations in our family; who we have become in our middle years and its relationship to our earlier dreams; and as we near and enter old age, what our lives have meant, to others and to ourselves.

Daniel Levinson has traced this scheme of development in quite specific social steps. He proposes that after childhood and adolescence we spend about twenty five years each in the separate stages of early adulthood, middle adulthood, and late adulthood, with a five year period of transition between stages. According to Levinson, early adulthood, during which we achieve autonomy from our family, choose a profession and make our most important steps toward success in it, and marry or decide not to marry, lasts until age forty or fortyfive, including the five year transition out of it. During that time, assuming that we have had a secure childhood and adolescence, we are in our best physical form and proceed with resilient optimism. During middle adulthood, from age forty to age sixty five (including the transition into it, a typically dramatic midlife crisis), we assess the relationship between our dreams in young adulthood and the actual path we have taken; we adjust to the realities of the present; and we assume new roles, often as mentors, vis a vis the generations following our own. We begin to experience biological decline, perhaps counterbalanced by a satisfying growth in our psychological maturity. In late adulthood, beginning about age sixty five, we decide how, or even whether, to continue making a contribution to the social world at large. Experiencing physical and social losses, we look (or refuse to look) to the certainty of death. At every transition from one stage to the next, we experience uncertainty, sometimes disillusionment, often stagnation, and finally, with a re formed vision, the resolve to move on. Typically we revisit developmental problems at each stage, moving on to a deeper understanding of our past. As we grow older, retrospection and more profound assessment become increasingly important.

In studying Homer, I came to see how such a developmental approach reveals underlying patterns in Homer's life and work and illuminates many dimensions of his career. It makes pertinent to his images the extensive knowledge we have of his family and the rich trove of his correspondence, in which he seldom mentions his art but discusses his life a great deal. This approach, used with appropriate attention to his realistic style, simple and yet profound themes, and personal reticence, all of which viewers have long found intriguing, throws light on the crucible of selfhood within which Homer created his pictures. We can use the method to relate Homer's identity as an artist and as a person to the entire range of his images, from his earliest illustrations to his last paintings. I argue that Homer started his "real" work when he began drawing illustrations in the late 1850s rather than when he picked up a paintbrush in 1863: from the very beginning he infused into his pictures the social, emotional, Intellectual, and finally spiritual dimensions of his life.

In considering the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of Homer's experience, I situate his work in the popular philosophical understandings of realism and nature in which he was trained tied and worked all his life. Because these concepts materialize in the vocabulary of his reviewers, I have been attentive to their comments. His critics also shared his assumptions about class, gender, nationalism, and professionalism and, most important, about the language of "realism" the vocabulary of a "scientific" and "material" outlook. Two terms, "observation," and "nature," were fundamental to this vocabulary. Over and again, reviewers stated that Homer "painted what he saw" and "was a painter of nature in its great variety." I have subtitled my book "The Nature of Observation" to anchor Homer's life and practice in these shared understandings.

During Homer's formative and practicing years to observe meant to report attentively on common interests, to point to conclusions that could be ratified by others. Observers studied the social world and the natural world, the look of gesture and spaces, and the phenomena of rocks and oceans, skies and trees. For artists, novelists, scientists, and thoughtful citizens, matter counted, and so did the process by which one examined it: reporting, hypothesizing, and testing, then presenting it to an audience for consensus about the actual material world observed and the meanings that it might or even should carry. As an ideal this process replaced what was commonly referred to in the eighteenth century as reason, or received "truths" about humanity and nature that were the basis, rather than the end results, of looking and acting. To observe well in the new spirit of the nineteenth century was to participate in the serious work of intellectual and social citizenship.

During Homer's formative years the term "nature" meant the nonhuman world and its transcendent dimension. Until very late in the century most people, in Homer's family and, more generally, in the English speaking world, assumed that this world had been created by, and was sustained by, a transcendent God." Until the early years of the nineteenth century most people believed in a stable universe. The growth of geology, biology, and other sciences during the early and mid nineteenth century, however, changed intellectuals' assessments of nature and of the invisible reality, or the God, that supported it. By 1860 many investigators assumed that humanity was part of nature, that natural processes were dynamic, and that the universe was continually changing. These assumptions did not mean necessarily that they stopped believing in God; rather, they altered their ideas about how God was at work. Including humanity in nature, they began to speculate that we participate in a larger system of development than had ever been imagined. And thus the meaning of observation, from which one drew conclusions about the forces at work in the world, changed as well. For those who maintained their earlier faith that God had created the universe, observation meant using God's gifts of mind in the most reverent way: God wanted human beings to be scientific, to study and draw conclusions about a world in ongoing creation." For those who were losing their faith and even declaring themselves agnostic, to observe was to be attentive to the dynamism of nature and to acknowledge courageously that the very existence of oceans and forests and creatures the fact that there are facts remained unexplained.

Homer's paintings, I believe, come to us as marks of confidence in the importance of observation, its intimate relation to life, and the ultimate reality of nature. His images are the work of a man who lived one life as we all do each part informing all the other parts.

I have built gratefully on previous scholars' work on the details of Homer's life, the critical climate in which he painted, cultural understandings of masculinity and femininity during his lifetime, and the strains of a nation in transition from rural to urban. I cite these sources at appropriate points in the text. I have avoided a specific theoretical perspective beyond the general approach of Erikson, particularly in gender and class relations, however, because I do not believe that a single explanation of social relations does justice to the complexity of a human life. A few scholars have tried psychoanalytic approaches to Homer's sexuality. I have avoided these too, doubting that they can illuminate the entire range of his pictures. I have, however, discussed Homer's belief in God and its pertinence to his late paintings. Scholars in art history of the late nineteenth century have generally avoided reference to the transcendent, perhaps because the theories of social and political investigation with which we work reduce the world of our predecessors to a material one. Finally, because my work focuses on the intimate relation between biography and pictures, I do not analyze all of Homer's images. I choose, rather, to discuss those I believe critical to his life.

Experience is fragmentary, layered, and always in process. We cannot know Homer's attitude toward the Civil War, the depth of his ambitions as a young painter, his intellectual grasp of the principles of evolution, the nature of his love for his mother, his sexual impulses, his definition of God. We do know, however, that we ourselves have a complete palette of drives, a range of information and beliefs and attitudes toward our parents, toward our own sexuality, toward war, toward scientific explanation, toward the transcendent. In using the work of Erikson and his followers to narrate Homer's life, I rely on a constellation of interpretations that admit the uniqueness of each person's developmental journey. Because these theories of psychosocial development have thoroughly permeated popular literature in recent decades one might even say the terminology has become fundamental to how we think about ourselves I have referred explicitly to them only occasionally. I have felt comfortable using this approach, assuming that my readers will respond with a similar ease to the insights it offers.

This early twenty-first-century project has its roots in my desire to transcend reductive theoretical explanations by probing the lived experience in an artist's choices and images. The book is, too, frankly a late middle age project, in which I look at the life and pictures of a person approximately one hundred years my senior whose life also took one unexpected turn after another. My question is always, what was Homer's life as he was living it? My hope in this book is to bring alive in the reader's imagination the person and artist Winslow Homer, the man who gave us who gives us pictures that on first look are transparent; at closer study become reticent; and on reflection evoke what is ultimately inexplicable, the course of human life and the universe in which it unfolds.

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