Winslow Homer's Right and Left
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Narration by Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., senior curator of American and British paintings, National Gallery of Art.
This audio segment is from the recording made for The Director's Tour (© 2001 Acoustiguide Corporation and National Gallery of Art).
Audio text for Winslow Homer's Right and Left
Right and Left is Winslow Homer's last great picture, painted the year before his death in 1910. That fact, I think, inevitably colors what we feel about it. He was in his seventies, and had already experienced a minor stroke. One can't help but think of this as some sort of premonition of his own mortality.
On its most basic level, of course, this is a sporting picture; and its first owner was interested in it as a piece of hunting art. Its title refers to a feat in hunting of shooting two ducks in rapid succession with a double-barreled shotgun--one with the right barrel, followed immediately by one with the left.
But its characteristic of Homer to disguise profound or personal meanings in ordinary subjects. What makes this work particularly powerful is its largeness of conception, its simplicity, and its sense of confrontation, right "in your face" as people say these days. The birds are pressed up against the surface of the picture, almost falling out into the viewer's space. We have this physical, immediate sense of their extinction, which gets more powerful the more you think about it. And when you register that tiny hunter in the boat, just beneath the bird at the left, and you see the scarlet flash of his gun, you realize that we are being shot at too. And it becomes even more disturbing.
Many people don't even notice the hunter at first. But Homer is a master of meaningful detail, always balanced perfectly within the total composition. I can feel his excitement, share the fun he had in figuring it all out.
There's that extraordinary sense that while the duck on the right is already falling, the other has just been hit, so we are witnessing two stages of action here--the very last moment of life, and the very first moment of death. Don't miss that one little feather floating off at the right. And what I think is the most wonderful detail of all--and the hardest to see: it's just below the upper wing of the bird who stares out at us--the thinnest sliver of orange-red, where the sun is just edging above the horizon adding to the sense of the momentary that permeates the picture
Finally, I hope you'll stand back and look at this painting from a distance. Then you'll see the sun and the hunter disappear completely, leaving us with a staggeringly beautiful and almost oriental arrangement of birds--just abstract shapes against bands of the subtlest cream and grey.