The Art of Fly-Fishing
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MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, the art of fly fishing. Spencer Michels reports.
SPENCER MICHELS: In the stately confines of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum, the subject this winter was fishing– fly fishing. The artist: Winslow Homer, one of America’s most revered painters. His outdoor canvases, like “Gulf Stream” from 1899, often depict man against the elements. “Breezing Up,” painted 23 years earlier, is much more light hearted and nostalgic. Other paintings, from charming young women, to scenes of the South, have made Homer an American icon. What is not so well known was that fly fishing was Homer’s passion. In “Casting a Spell,” more than 50 of his fly fishing paintings have been brought together for the first time. Pat Junker of the Amon Carter Museum in Forth Worth, Texas, curated the show.
PAT JUNKER, Curator: While Homer took up this subject at a time when sporting art was really coming into its own as a genre, and was celebrated, he is still regarded as the best painter in watercolor that has ever lived.
SPENCER MICHELS: Homer, a Yankee aristocrat from the Northeast, captured the spirit of fly fishing in dozens of watercolors and oils painted toward the end of the 1800s. As an adult, Homer painted scenes reminiscent of his own childhood and his close relationship with his brother. In this photo, circa 1900, Homer is on the right; his brother, Charles, on the left, was wealthy and successful, and a fishermen, too, who bought some of Homer’s early paintings to encourage him. But Homer didn’t need much help.
PAT JUNKER: He was a success from an early age, an artist-journalist during the Civil War, successful illustrator, moved into oil painting kind of instinctively, was self-taught, if you can believe it.
SPENCER MICHELS: Fly fishermen, like Homer, often considered themselves a breed apart from other fisherman.
PAT JUNKER: He moved among sportsmen who were men of leisure, and who could afford to be men of leisure. These were also men who were buying paintings, who had memberships in these private clubs where you could fish under the best circumstances.
SPENCER MICHELS: Homer fished and painted working out of exclusive clubs in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, as well as in Quebec and Florida. He aimed to sell his paintings mostly to affluent fishermen.
PAT JUNKER: He wanted to paint for people who really understood him, and understood his paintings as they were conceived, and understood the brilliance of his execution. They’re not traditional angling subjects at all, but if you were an experienced, thoughtful, informed sportsman, you would understand and appreciate this.
SPENCER MICHELS: Homer sold his paintings for $75 to $150 at the time, pictures that a century later have brought as much as $4 million. That’s partly because of the painter’s reputation as a major American artist.
MEL KREIER: Ah, beautiful, beautiful.
SPENCER MICHELS: Mel Kreiger says Homer knew his fishing as well as his painting. Kreiger is an avid fly fisherman, too, and a sometimes art enthusiast. He and his wife visited the exhibition.
MEL KREIGER: Fly fishing is kind of a genteel thing. It’s kind of A… it’s kind of a dance. It’s a quixotic little game that we play that… that’s hard to capture. It was a really nice experience walking around, even though I’m not, you know, I’m not an art critic or anything. It just made me feel very good. I could… I could relate to this guy.
SPENCER MICHELS: Kreiger’s experience on mountain streams, with a light graphite fly rod and a pair of waders and a tapered leader, is a little different than Homer’s more than a century ago, using heavier, more awkward equipment. But, Kreiger says, the basics are the same.
MEL KREIGER: I really think that guy was a fisherman.
SPENCER MICHELS: He practices his art in the casting pools in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, near the museum, where the fishermen don’t use a hook, and there are no fish to be caught. And he was happy to shire a few tips with me.
MEL KREIGER: Get your hand down just a little bit.
SPENCER MICHELS: Get my hand down?
MEL KREIGER: Yeah, not quite so high.
SPENCER MICHELS: These pools provide a near-fishing experience that Kreiger says Homer would have appreciated, because of the grace of casting an artificial fly, even in an artificial pool.
MEL KREIGER: You know, a lot of times in fly fishing you’re really handicapping yourself. A guy with a spinning rod or a plug casting rod or bait could probably out fish us most of the time. We can take and drop a fly on the water thirty, forty, fifty feet away, you know, just, almost like a bug. Good shot.
SPOKESPERSON: Very true of the water, that’s what these pictures are all about…
SPENCER MICHELS: Finding Homer’s fly fishing paintings and persuading their owners to lend them took Junker a couple of years. While most are watercolors, “the angler,” done in 1874, is an oil.
PAT JUNKER: The critics, in fact, were disturbed by pictures like this because they thought they lacked finish. And this wonderful fluidity of the oil medium, and the kind of dash and unfinished look about it was something that we think of as coming from impressionism, which doesn’t really take hold in America until the end of the 19th century. And here’s Homer in the 1870s doing things that are really daring and bold with color and paint for its own sake.
SPENCER MICHELS: The angler himself, wearing a suit and tie, was a friend of Homer’s. Homer also painted rougher sorts, often guides who took him on canoe trips in rugged country. And he painted fish, rainbow and brook trout in great detail.
PAT JUNKER: Scale is really important in these paintings of fish to impart a sense of the scale of…
SPENCER MICHELS: This is a strange kind of a scale, because that fish looks huge compared to the background.
PAT JUNKER: Well, that’s right. This is an experience that anglers have, of course. We’ve… if you’ve fished in a boat and you’ve had a brook trout leap around you, you do have this exhilarating, momentary experience which Homer has frozen for us here.
SPENCER MICHELS: While some of his pictures are extremely realistic, in “Fish and Butterflies” Homer seems to forget about context and space.
PAT JUNKER: I think that’s what angling did for Homer. It made him one of the first artists of the… in America to border on being wholly abstract. That dizzying, disorienting sense that anglers have he created perfectly, and it’s hard to believe that this is a 19th century painting.
MEL KREIGER: Well, I think it’s really different than anything I’ve seen before.
SPENCER MICHELS: For Mel Kreiger, the accuracy Homer brought to his work was convincing.
MEL KREIGER: I think the guy was absolutely a fly fisherman. In one of the paintings, I remember watching the backward cast. And it’s only somebody that’s really kind of familiar that knows you’ve got to throw the line well in the back before you can get it in the front.
SPENCER MICHELS: And Kreiger likes the motion of the water in these Homer paintings.
MEL KREIGER: That’s really the adventure in fishing: That heavy water. There’s some real excitement there. Those shots where the waves are three to four feet high, and that small boat, a little bit of an adventure.
SPENCER MICHELS: Not all those who visit the exhibit fly fish, but a good many do, including the curator.
PAT JUNKER: They remind me of experiences that I’ve had. And I have to say that the inspiration for this show came when I began fishing. And I kept feeling that I was having Winslow Homer moments where I’d watch a guide who was adept at casting the line just right, or you’d see leaping fish around you sitting in the boat in perfectly clear water, where you could look down and see brilliantly colored fish all around you, like you do in some of the paintings.
SPENCER MICHELS: Fly fishermen, prospective fly fishermen, and anyone else, can view Winslow Homer’s love song to his sport, at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth through June 22.