From May 1881 to November 1882, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) painted the women of Cullercoats, a small fishing village on the northeast coast of England. As described by a contemporary critic, he depicted the “sturdy, fearless, fit wives and mothers of men,” rather than “dolls who flaunt their millinery.” Over 130 years later, that’s still how they appear, though I far prefer those fashionable dolls playing croquet as he painted back in the 1860s.
As a self-taught artist, Homer was very good at learning how to use a variety of media: charcoal, graphite, watercolor and oil paint were in his repertoire. He was also a naturally gifted designer and storyteller. That’s how he rose to fame as an artist-journalist embedded within Union brigades during the American Civil War. However, he did not learn how to draw the human figure as interconnected volumes in space, as was taught in the French academies of his day. He painted human bodies more like flat patterns. And he rarely did portraiture, since the slightest variation in tiny form affects recognizable identity and character. He often obscured his faces in shadow.
As in his earlier work, the charcoal sketches from these years offer immediacy, drama and deft design. But those qualities cannot be found in his more finished pieces, in which he typically isolates a generic, awkward female figure or two against a theatrical backdrop. Apparently, he was trying to give them the mass and inner power of a sculpture that might represent a goddess. Helpfully, the exhibition includes many possible sources for these works, especially the Classical Greek and Roman statuary as photographed by Stephen Thompson or William J. Stillman. And apparently, Homer much admired the work of Jules Breton whose “The Song of the Lark” (1884)—borrowed for this show from the Art Institute of Chicago—shares the same rustic idealism as Homer’s sturdy fishwives.
The exhibition offers many other opportunities to view Homer’s contemporaries. He did not develop that spacious and atmospheric approach to landscapes which can be seen in another view of Cullercoats painted three years later by a local artist. In the pictorial space created by Robert Jobling (1841-1923), the viewer seems to be standing among the puddles while women nearby carry baskets of fish up to the quaint village in the distance. Homer offered a view from exactly the same location, but his quick charcoal sketch of men hauling heavy boats is far more dramatic and far less picturesque. And the viewer’s feet are quite dry.
In contrast to the European artists in this exhibit, Homer seemed to emphasize the inner struggle of individuals, even when they were cooperating against the forces of nature. Which is to say, they feel quite American, and like other heroes of American art, from Melville to Pollock, the artist himself seems more driven by inner forces than by social pressure. He is quoted as declaring that “Hark! the Lark” (1882) was “the most important I ever painted, and the very best,” but I think that relates only to his own personal world. At the age of forty-six, this lifelong bachelor was apparently obsessed with strong, sincere and hardworking young women whom he feared and admired too much to court. His paintings of solitary men and later seascapes from Prouts Neck, Maine, are his most impressive paintings. Incredibly enough, the electricity of the brushwork in “Driftwood” (1909), his very last finished piece, is the most powerful. He was a loner, and when alone, he was at his best. (Chris Miller)
“Coming Away: Winslow Homer and England” shows through May 20 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 North Museum Drive, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.