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Homer and Eakins: American Painters in the Late 1800s

Overview

 

Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins are revered today for their insightful portrayals of Americans at work and play, often infused with multiple levels of meaning. Despite their mutual dedication to realism, the two had vastly different reputations in their own time.

Homer, raised in Boston, was lionized as one of the United States' leading artists. Trained as a printmaker and magazine illustrator, Homer enlivened his narrative scenes, landscapes, and seascapes with keenly observed character types.

Eakins, a Philadelphia painter and art professor, was given only a single one-man show in his whole career. Primarily a portraitist, Eakins chose actions and settings to suit the personalities of specific sitters, often his friends and relatives.

Thomas Eakins, American, 1844 - 1916, Louis Husson, 1899, oil on canvas, Gift of Katharine Husson Horstick, 1957.2.1

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Albert Pinkham Ryder, though a near contemporary of both Homer and Eakins, was a very different sort of painter. Hermitlike and visionary, he explored biblical, literary, and mythological themes. His Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens was inspired by Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungs. Ryder claimed, “I had been to hear the opera and went home about twelve o’clock and began this picture. I worked for forty-eight hours without sleep or food.” Nevertheless, when he exhibited the canvas in New York in 1891, he had been revising it for three years.

Lit by an eerie moon, the Rhine River nymphs recoil in horror when they realize that the German warrior Siegfried possesses their stolen, magic ring. After he refuses to return it, they predict that he will die violently. To evoke impending doom, Ryder devised tortured shapes, crusty textures, and an unearthly green color scheme.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, American, 1847 - 1917, Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens, 1888/1891, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1946.1.1

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Two men with pale skin, wearing white sleeveless shirts and royal-blue caps, row in unison in a long, narrow boat on a placid blue river in this horizontal landscape painting. The low, honey-colored wooden boat extends off both sides of the canvas. Both men face our left as they row to our right. The man in front looks ahead of him, beyond the stern of the boat, and the man to our right, closer to the bow, tucks his chin down to look past his shoulder. Their bare, muscled arms are extended straight as the two oars sweep back. The tip of another boat runs close and parallel to the bottom edge of the composition, spanning the left three-quarters of the painting. The opposite riverbank is lined with a dense forest of pine-green trees. People crowd along the decks of a steamboat and a paddleboat near the riverbank to our left. Another narrow skuller, rowed by four people wearing ruby-red shirts, cuts through the water at the back center of the river. The riverbank beyond is lined with people, painted with strokes of black and white, and miniscule touches of red. The horizon comes halfway up the composition. Cream-white clouds float across a muted, topaz-blue sky above the trees.

In the decade following the Civil War, rowing became one of America’s most popular spectator sports. When its champions, the Biglin brothers of New York, visited Philadelphia in the early 1870s, Thomas Eakins made numerous paintings and drawings of them and other racers. Here, the bank of the Schuylkill River divides the composition in two. The boatmen and the entering prow of a competing craft fill the lower half with their immediate, large-scale presence. The upper and distant half contains a four-man rowing crew, crowds on the shore, and spectators following in flagdecked steamboats.

Himself an amateur oarsman and a friend of the Biglins, Eakins portrays John with his blade still feathered, almost at the end of his return motion. Barney, a split-second ahead in his stroke, watches for his younger brother’s oar to bite the water. Both ends of the Biglins’ pair-oared boat project beyond the picture’s edges, generating a sense of urgency, as does the other prow jutting suddenly into view.

The precision of Eakins’ style reflects his upbringing as the son of a teacher of penmanship. He studied under academic artists in Paris and traveled in Europe from 1866 to 1870. To further his understanding of anatomy, Eakins participated in dissections at Philadelphia's Jefferson Medical College in 1872-1874.

Thomas Eakins, American, 1844 - 1916, The Biglin Brothers Racing, 1872, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, 1953.7.1

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As if sitting on the brick pavement of a sunny veranda, we look at a young toddler leaning heavily on her right arm, to our left, and bent right leg, with her opposite leg extended to create a diagonal across this horizontal painting. Though much of her face is cast in deep shadow from the bright light overhead, we get the impression of intense focus as she looks towards the wooden alphabet block she holds in her left hand. Her left leg stretches to our right in a stocking striped with vivid red and white. Light glints off the shiny material of her black, round-toed slipper. She has short, golden-brown hair and her white smock is richly embroidered in a pattern of white-one-white, alternating linked loops. Scattered before her at arms-length are seven other alphabet blocks lettered in grey with red and tan faces, several wooden building blocks, and a ball of red yarn. An abandoned doll in a black dress lays with limbs akimbo, face-down by a potted plant at the right edge of the canvas. Similarly ignored, a red wagon drawn by white toy horse seems to trot towards the left edge. The scene is enclosed with a deep, emerald green hedge stretching across the background. The artist signed and dated this work as if he had inscribed two of the bricks on the patio with red paint in cursive script, in the lower right corner: “Eakins 76.”

In 1876, Eakins joined the faculty of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Painted the same year, Baby at Play depicts Ella Crowell, the artist’s two-and-one-half-year-old niece, in the side yard of his own Philadelphia home. Ella is totally absorbed with alphabet blocks, having cast aside her ball, doll, and toy horse and cart.

In accord with late nineteenth-century attitudes about education, she has progressed from infantile pursuits to more advanced stages of development. By stacking up the blocks, the child practices language and motor skills. Eakins communicates his niece’s serious concentration by arranging her into a solid, pyramidal mass that is nearly life-size and aligned geometrically with the toys, blocks, and paved walk. The brown bricks show Eakins’ expertise in mechanical drafting and, with the dark shrubbery, set off Ella’s sunlit figure.

Eakins’ skill in modeling with light and shadow also marks three small oil studies in the National Gallery of Art. These quick life sketches of African-American subjects are the same size as their final pictures. Two relate to Negro Boy Dancing of 1878, a watercolor now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. For an oil painting of 1908 now in The Brooklyn Museum, Eakins made The Chaperone, in which an old servant knits while a young girl poses nude for a sculptor.

Thomas Eakins, American, 1844 - 1916, Baby at Play, 1876, oil on canvas, John Hay Whitney Collection, 1982.76.5

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The poet Walt Whitman declared, “Eakins is not a painter, he is a force.” Indeed, the uncompromising honesty in Eakins’ portraits was thought too crude for social propriety. As one Philadelphia gentleman joked, Eakins “would bring out all the traits of my character that I had been trying to hide from the public for years.”

A few doctors, professors, and other intellectuals did appreciate his penetrating analyses. The full-length Archbishop Diomede Falconio is among fourteen portraits Eakins created of Roman Catholic clergy. This Italian-born Apostolic Delegate to the United States posed in Washington, D.C., where he resided at the Catholic University of America. As a poor Franciscan friar, he normally shunned the impressive gray silk robes that he wears here. For unknown reasons, the canvas is unfinished. The face and hands appear completed, but the vestments, chair, carpet, and wall paneling have not received their final details.

The church scholar, at age sixty-three, was only two years older than the painter; even so, Eakins rudely called Falconio “the old man.” Eakins’ manners were blunt, and his art seldom flattered. Among the National Gallery’s other candid, late portraits by Eakins are Louis Husson, which the artist inscribed as a gift to his friend, a French-born photographer, and equally frank likenesses of Husson’s wife and niece.

Thomas Eakins, American, 1844 - 1916, Archbishop Diomede Falconio, 1905, oil on canvas, Gift of Stephen C. Clark, 1946.16.1

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In a camp, two soldiers wearing blue uniforms are lost in thought as they listen to a military band playing music in the background in this vertical painting. Their uniforms consist of navy blue jackets, stone blue pants, and flat-topped, brimmed hats. Brass buttons line the open fronts of their jackets and a gold-colored emblem is affixed to the tops of their caps. One soldier, at the center of the painting, stands facing our left in profile with one hand on his hip. Another, to our right, sits in front of a tent, also looking towards our left. The seated soldier’s knees are spread wide. One hand rests a few papers on his thigh, perhaps a letter, and he rests his chin in the other hand, also propped on his thigh. A low, triangular tent, about waist-high, is pitched to the left of the standing solider. The inside is dark but closer inspection reveals the bottom of one boot, presumably on a solider laying down inside. At the lower left of the painting, gray smoke drifts up from a pot on a campfire. A knapsack and a pewter plate holding waffle-like hardtack biscuits are laid near the tent. A few branches cover the dirt ground to our right. A tan cloth draped over an arbor-like structure of sticks forms a partition between the two soldiers and the rest of the camp, dividing the composition. Rows of tents extend into the distance. A band of soldiers plays music in the distance, their gold horn instruments pointing upwards toward the light blue sky. A row of tents is visible in the deep distance, perhaps across a body of water. The horizon line comes about two-thirds of the way up the composition, and the blue sky is filled with white, fluffy clouds.

As a freelance reporter sketching the Civil War’s front lines for newspapers and magazines, Winslow Homer developed an incisive candor. His debut as an oil painter occurred in the spring of 1863, with the enthusiastically reviewed exhibition of Home, Sweet Home. Two Union infantrymen pause while a military band plays the familiar ballad, reminding them poignantly that their campsite is neither sweet nor home.

The conflict of 1861-1865 changed American society profoundly. With men gone to combat, women managed family businesses and assumed professional roles, such as teaching. These newly independent women, working or relaxing, figure prominently in Homer’s postwar subjects.

Homer treated many of his favorite motifs in serial format, creating variations in different media. The Dinner Horn depicts a farm maid who also appears in two other oil paintings as well as in an illustration in Harper’s Weekly. A crisp autumn sunshine is imparted by the bright shadows on her dress and the colorful flutter of leaves blowing across the grass. As she summons the field hands for their meal, a gust of wind reveals a provocative bit of petticoat and her shapely ankles. The Red School House, showing a solemn young teacher clutching her book, is among his many scenes of country schools. As one personification of a season, Autumn alludes to fashionable attire and, thus, to modern life.

Winslow Homer, American, 1836 - 1910, Home, Sweet Home, c. 1863, oil on canvas, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1997.72.1

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Seeming close to us, a young man and three boys sit or recline in a small sailboat that tips to our left on a choppy dark green sea in this horizontal painting. The billowing sail extends off the top left corner of the canvas and is echoed in the background to our right by the tall sails of another ship in the distance. The horizon line comes about a third of the way up the composition, and puffy grey and white clouds sweep across the turquoise sky. The sun lights the scene from our right so the boys’ ruddy faces are in shadow under their hats. The young man and boys all face our left so they lean against and into the boat as it cants up to our right. The boy nearest the sail to our left reclines across the bow. Next to him to our right, a younger boy perches on the edge of the boat and holds on with both hands. The oldest, in a red shirt, sits on the floor of the boat as he maneuvers the sail with a rope. Closer to us and to our right, a younger boy sits with his bare feet pressed together in front of his bent knees on the back edge of the boat, gazing into the distance over his right shoulder as he handles the tiller. The artist signed and dated the painting in dark letters in the lower right corner: “HOMER 1876.”

The sea, which would dominate Homer’s late work, began to assume a role in his paintings as early as 1873, when he summered at Gloucester, Massachusetts. Here, a catboat bearing the name Gloucester turns toward home in late afternoon, the day’s catch of fish stowed in its cockpit. A brisk breeze raises whitecaps, fills the mainsail, and heels the boat over until its port rail is awash. Counteracting the wind, a fisherman and three boys throw their weight to the starboard side. On the horizon, a gull circles over a two-masted schooner.

The apparent spontaneity bears out Homer’s statement, “I try to paint truthfully what I see, and make no calculations.” In actual practice, however, Homer did carefully calculate his compositions, including this one. The oil painting, exhibited to popular and critical acclaim in 1876, began with a watercolor study probably done on the spot three years earlier in Gloucester harbor.

Comparison with the initial watercolor and laboratory examination of this final oil reveal many changes in design. Originally, the tiller was guided by the old man instead of a boy. A fourth boy once sat in the place now occupied by the anchor, a symbol of hope. Because in 1876 the United States was celebrating its centennial as a nation, Homer may have made these alterations to suggest the promise of America’s youth.

Winslow Homer, American, 1836 - 1910, Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), 1873-1876, oil on canvas, Gift of the W. L. and May T. Mellon Foundation, 1943.13.1

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A young man with a ruddy complexion lies on his stomach in a wooden rowboat on a river, reaching forward with his right hand to grasp the horn of a stag almost completely submerged in the rippling water. On the opposite riverbank, gold, rust, and scarlet-red trees span the width of this horizontal painting. The boy’s arms straddle the stern of the boat so one holds the antler while the other clutches a rope with a loop at the end. He turns his face, mouth agape and cheeks flushed, over his right shoulder to look to our left, at a dog swimming toward the boat. The dog has white and caramel-brown markings, with dark brown ears. The boy wears earth-brown clothing and the front of his wide brimmed hat is pushed up to reveal dark eyes and sable-brown bangs and brows. The stag and dog are between us and the boat, and are surrounded by thick brushstrokes of parchment white to create ripples in the forest-green water. Only the open muzzle, part of the eye, and the tips of the stag’s antlers are above the water’s surface. To our right, a bare, fallen tree lies along the far riverbank parallel to the boat. The boat and water fill the lower half of the scene and the autumn trees fill the upper half. The artist has signed and dated the painting in the lower right, “Winslow Homer 1892.”

At age forty-seven, Homer settled in Prout’s Neck, Maine. Always a silent bachelor who guarded his technical methods and personal beliefs, he became almost a recluse. When he left the coast of Maine, it was to fish or hunt in the Adirondack Mountains and Canada or the Caribbean Sea and Bermuda— taking his watercolor supplies with him.

Homer’s watercolor sketch for Hound and Hunter showed, lying behind the boy, a rifle that the artist later painted out. When this final canvas was exhibited in 1892, its subject was condemned as a cruel sport then practiced in the Adirondacks. Some viewers believed the youth was drowning the deer to save ammunition. The artist curtly responded, “The critics may think that that deer is alive but he is not—otherwise the boat and man would be knocked high and dry.”

To clarify that the stag is already dead and no longer struggling, however, Homer did repaint the churning water to hide more of the animal. The hunter, therefore, simply ties up a heavy load, calling off the hound so it will not jump into the boat and swamp it.

Homer once asked a museum curator, “Did you notice the boy’s hands—all sunburnt; the wrists somewhat sunburnt, but not as brown as his hands; and the bit of forearm where his sleeve is pulled back not sunburnt at all? I spent more than a week painting those hands.”

Winslow Homer, American, 1836 - 1910, Hound and Hunter, 1892 oil on canvas, Gift of Stephen C. Clark, 1947.11.1

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As if we’re in the sky, we look onto two black-headed ducks twisting and flailing against a slate gray landscape in this horizontal painting. The silvery white body of the bird to our left faces us as its neck twists to our left, its black wings extended. The bird to our right falls with its head facing down, its gray wings partially contracted and its legs splayed. The landscape behind them is made up of a sliver of golden amber along the top edge above three wider bands of steel gray that darken towards the bottom of the canvas. A spray of turquoise near the bottom center of the painting indicates that the gray bands are cresting waves. Seen in the distance beyond the feet of the left bird, a gray smudge suggests smoke obscuring a man wearing a gray garment and vivid orange cap. His elbows are raised, presumably holding a shotgun. He sits in a long brown canoe that rides near the crest of the middle wave.

Right and Left is the last major painting Homer completed and exhibited before his death. According to the artist’s first biographer, when the untitled canvas was shown by Homer’s dealer, “[A] sportsman came in, caught a glimpse of the picture, and at once cried out: ‘Right and left!’—admiring…the skill of the hunter who could bring down a bird with each barrel of his double-barreled shotgun in quick succession. So the work was christened.”

The shotgun flashes in the distance are from a hunter standing in a boat. Contemporary reports indicate Homer hired a man to fire blank shots in his direction so he could observe the flare through the fog.

A naturalist, Homer may have derived inspiration from John James Audubon’s encyclopedic Birds of America. In 1836 Audubon had published a print, Golden-Eye Duck, showing two birds of this same species in similarly splayed postures. The severe shapes may also reveal an aesthetic influence from the bold patterns in Japanese woodblock prints.

An explosive, jagged energy interacts between the angular points in wings, bills, feet, and waves. The gray morning’s chilly colors are punctuated by the birds’ yellow feet and eyes, the gun blast, and a sliver of the rising sun. Whether the ducks are darting to escape or already have been hit, the work is a stark metaphor of life and death.

Winslow Homer, American, 1836 - 1910, Right and Left, 1909, oil on canvas, Gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1951.8.1

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