Winslow Homer: Work in Progress

July 1, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT



ROGER ROSENBLATT: On this July 4th, sing America and a painter of America, Winslow Homer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is doing that this summer in a retrospective exhibition that covers Homer’s life, 1836 to 1910, and his long career.

The career, itself, covers much of the country in the late 19th century. Homer, known mainly for painting placid rural scenes, Snap the Whip and Crossing the Pasture, was also the painter of the Civil War and its soldiers, of reconstruction and freed slaves, of the sea and seafarers in Massachusetts and in Maine, and of the tropics in Key West, Florida.

He painted men, women, and children in different climates and circumstances, all of whom made up a nation equally searching and diverse. These two qualities Homer saw as the heart of the republic and using oils and water colors, like his contemporary, Walt Whitman, he too sang “America.” The roughness of his style is an analog to the searching country. Homer’s finished work appears oddly unfinished, as if he was painting on the run and implying that what I see is about to change. Sometimes the mutability is inherent in the subject. His paintings of the sea off the coast of Maine catch waves in motion as they billow, spray, and crash, and the sea, of course, rolls on.

But his more serene subjects too seem on the verge of changing, the woman holding the sick chicken, the woman at the window, the boys in a pasture all would appear to be contentedly rooted in place, were it not for the deliberate incompleteness of Homer’s style. Like many American artists, Homer is both illustrator and painter, both journalist and novelist.

The country, which is his theme, is on a quest. It moves too fast, and it moves all the time, searching for its name and address. He paints it almost in a blur. And the country is vast and very different, depending on where one looks. There is America in a game of croquet. There is America in prisoners from the front. There, touchingly, is America in the veteran in a new field, return from the dreadful Civil War, the vet wields his symbolic sickle in his wheat field, rather than carrying it in war as death’s messenger. The country is all too much, yet not enough.

One thinks of diversity descending on America in a rush of European immigration, yet, Homer shows how diverse it was already. Made up of differences, it awaited more differences. No wonder then that his paintings suggest tension, not only of potential action but of thought. The carnival shows African-Americans, former slaves, preparing for the carnival of American life, all dressed up but no place to go.

Where will the children sitting in the country school go when they walk from the building into the green land visible through the windows? What will befall the woman and child struggling forward in the gale? Homer’s figures are all like the two women dancing on a summer night, slowly and formally dancing in the presence of shadowy figures and a shadowy sea, made alternately shimmering and dangerous by the cast of light. This was his America, the possibility of everything terrible and wonderful, caught for a moment under his eye. The search could lead anywhere.

The diversity was endless, and who could tell what such a rich, grand, brooding place would make of itself? Like another powerful civilization, America had its Homer, but he could make no effort yet. He put America on display as a work in progress, dark and light, fearful and lovely, very rough at the edges, and ours.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.