He’s known for picturing the Great Outdoors, but if that’s all you see in Winslow Homer’s work, you’re missing the big picture: states of mind like apprehension, fear and other matters of inwardness.
On Dec. 5, the Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, VA, will open bidding for a rare Homer painting in blue and white on an 8-inch-square tile. The image is of a female figure looking out to sea on a blustery day – hat in hand, her hair tossed by the wind. So fixed is her focus on the ocean’s expanse that you suspect she is waiting for someone’s return. And you’re left wondering if she waits in vain.
As famed as Homer was for easel paintings, he was also given to painting on tile as were other equally famed artists like William Merritt Chase, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Francis Millet. They called their group the Tile Club.
“China painting became very popular in the last quarter of the 19th century, and it was something the club members did while socializing,” explained Matthew Quinn, vice president of Quinn’s Auction Galleries. “But it seems the group never took itself too seriously. As hard as it is to imagine, they were known to throw tiles at each another at the end of their meetings. It’s speculation, of course, but their ‘tile fights’ would be one possible explanation as to why so few exist today. Some say as few as six tiles produced by Winslow Homer have survived in any condition.”
But it’s fear, not frivolity that shows in the body of Homer’s work. Consider “Northeaster” which describes a brewing storm with a solitary surging wave high and fierce just before it breaks. If you’ve ever been caught sailing in a stormy sea, you know how the sight of a monster wave can induce unease.
“West Point, Prout’s Neck” (1900) – an image of a rough sea beating against jagged rocks – is said to have been Homer’s favorite – “the best thing I have painted.” But a New York critic thought differently, saying it was “simply the worst picture” at the Society of American Artists exhibition, circa 1900.
As time passed, though, critics came to understand that Homer was about more than simple marine painting. As British critic Robert Hughes wrote, “Perhaps no painting has ever conveyed a hunter’s anxiety better than (Homer’s) “Hound and Hunter,” with its flustered boy in the dinghy trying to get a rope on a shot stag’s antlers before it’s corpse sinks, lurching to and fro in a cave of forest darkness and disturbed silver ripples.”
Homer knew about fear from living on the English coast among poor fishermen who sometimes lost their lives on the stormy north Atlantic. But while Homer focused on the trials of living off the sea, you don’t have to be a fisherman or hunter to know anxiety, uncertainty and fear. In that way, Homer’s work speaks to everyone.