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Art Review

His gift: To be simple

Winslow Homer's spare, mythic images shine at the MFA

Winslow Homer Seascapes - such as "The Fog Warning, Halibut Fishing," showing a fisherman trying to return to his ship - are among Winslow Homer's most beloved subjects. (Photo courtesy Museum of Fine Arts)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / June 27, 2008

Sentimental, anecdotal, and occasionally trite: On all three counts, Winslow Homer was guilty. And yet he was the greatest American artist of the 19th century - and not only because his imagery was the most "American." (By that criterion, Norman Rockwell would be remembered as the greatest American artist of the 20th century, and he is not.)

Homer delights instead by consistently transcending his limitations. His work was modern in some ways, backward-looking in others; scholars have argued the toss endlessly. But it has a quality of rightness - what John Updike called "a morning sense of the world grasped afresh" - that makes such considerations, finally, feel persnickety.

Recognizing Homer's preeminence, the Museum of Fine Arts has mounted a single-room exhibit of its impressive Homer holdings to coincide with the opening of its freshly revamped nearby Fenway entrance. At the same time, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown has inaugurated its new Tadao Ando-designed Stone Hill Center with a display of seven Homer paintings from its collection (complemented by a similarly modest display of its John Singer Sargent holdings).

The MFA show, "Winslow Homer: American Scenes," is supported by no catalog and presents no new scholarship. But with 11 paintings, five watercolors, and more than 40 prints and drawings, it is the first significant display of Homer's work at the MFA since the Homer retrospective in 1996.

What's more, the hanging is something of a practice run for what curator Elliot Bostwick Davis, chairman of the MFA's Art of the Americas department, says will be a permanent installation showcasing Homer in the new American wing (expected to be completed in late 2010).

Arranged chronologically, the show begins with a gauche but poignant drawing the artist made in 1849, when he was just 13. The work riffs on a wry and prankish Currier & Ives lithograph published the same year, called "The Way We Go to California." It's a satirical commentary on the greed and folly laid bare by the Gold Rush, and for Homer, the theme was close to home.

His own father, who has been described as "selfish, irascible, egomaniacal and impractical" by Homer authority Randall C. Griffin, had left that year to seek his fortune in the California gold fields. His financial folly, then and in years to come, was clearly a source of embarrassment and resentment to Homer. The boy's drawing, which shows absurd figures heading west on rocket ships, may be light-hearted and whimsical, but it's not hard to smell something seditious in its scratchy lines.

A taste for sarcasm and mocking wit - a hallmark of most great illustrators - remained evident in the lithographs and drawings for wood engravings Homer created during the Civil War years, which he spent on assignment for Harper's Weekly. Some of the playing cards he made sending up the monotony and mischief of camp life are hilarious exercises in economical caricature - and refreshing diversions from the usual pictorial rhetoric of war. (Homer, it must be acknowledged, spent hardly any time at the front.)

After the war, Homer had a short spell - less than a year - in Paris. The visit's impact on him is hard to determine. Certainly, on the evidence of the wood engravings in the MFA collection, his eye was turned by the touristic cliches of Parisian life - high-kicking can-can dancers at Parisian balls - and by little else.

But there's no doubt that after his return, his painting matured, his brushwork became freer and juicier, and his sense of drama and design more potent and refined.

All these advances may have been largely self-generated. But a painting here called "Long Branch, New Jersey," made two years after the Paris jaunt, calls to mind the prettily populated beach scenes of Monet's teacher, Eugène Boudin. The design of a wood engraving showing flirtatious strollers on the strand, meanwhile, suggests the influence of Hiroshige, and of Japanese printmaking in general, which was all the rage in Paris (though Homer had seen examples of it before his trip).

Influence, anyway, can take decades to digest. Homer may have painted his great pictures of crashing waves long after visiting Paris, but who can look at these beloved works (the Clark's display has five of them) and not enjoy making comparisons with the painterly beach scenes of Courbet, Manet, Monet, and Renoir?

Notwithstanding its smattering of great paintings, including the beloved masterpieces "Boys in a Pasture" (1874) and "The Fog Warning, Halibut Fishing" (1885), the MFA show's most telling emphasis is on Homer's flair for drawing and design.

"Girl Seated" (1880), for example, is a scintillating piece of draftsmanship. A large drawing in charcoal on brown paper with striking passages of opaque white watercolor, it is as technically bold and gorgeously intimate as anything by Edgar Degas.

Homer was lodging with a lighthouse keeper on Ten Pound Island in Gloucester Harbor the summer he made it. Insulated from everyday distractions, he churned out dozens of ambitious drawings and watercolors, and in this one we feel him honing his ability to conjure a credible sense of human presence with sparer and sparer means. Note the confidence, the almost breezy panache, in Homer's lines, which bypass all extraneous detail to concentrate instead on the poignant immediacy of a young woman attending to her own inner life.

Scenes of stillness like this, and the two serenely aestheticized seascapes Homer painted to adorn the cabin of his brother's boat, were matched in Homer's oeuvre by scenes vigorously propelled by narrative momentum. In this show alone we have a fisherman in a row boat in ravenous seas struggling to return to his distant ship ("Fog Warning"), a sodden woman being rescued from rapids (the etching of "The Life Line (Saved)," (1889), and a fisherman braving a canting deck in rolling seas ("The Lookout - 'All's Well,' " 1896).

And yet, even when putting his skills in service to storytelling, reduction and simplicity remained touchstones. Again and again, one marvels at Homer's ability to distill the complications of context into natty and robust designs, almost mythic moments of decisiveness.

He was the product, it must be remembered, of a milieu in which "illustrational" and "anecdotal" were not the pejoratives they were beginning to be in avant-garde European circles.

"As a general rule," wrote the Goncourt brothers, Homer's urbanite contemporaries in Paris, "it is safe to say that any picture that produces a moral impression is a bad picture." But in most cases, the moral rhetoric underlying Homer's narratives remains easy to abide.

The symbolism of a masterpiece like "Boys in a Pasture," for instance, may be easy to unpick (the painting taps into a pervasive post-Civil War idealization of childhood). But the image remains what it is: modest, restrained, clear-sighted. There may be a message, but you don't feel bullied into getting it.

Correction: Because of an editing error, the first and last names of artist Winslow Homer were transposed in an item on a Museum of Fine Arts exhibition on the front page of yesterday's Weekend section.

Winslow Homer: American Scenes

At: Museum of Fine Arts, through Dec. 7. 617-267-9300, mfa.org

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