If I were offered one American painting . . .

No American artist moves me more than Winslow Homer. And yet I have a difficult time perceiving him as great. Nearly great, yes, I have no problem with that. But truly great? No, I'm afraid not.

I've often wondered why. I have the same doubts about Gauguin and about Eakins, the painter many Americans consider their premier painter. And then of course, I'm also not at all certain about Picasso -- despite the fact that he obviously was one of the outstanding geniuses of all time.

It could have something to do with Homer's beginnings, with the fact that he started out as an illustrator, and that, in some ways, he remained a storyteller until the end of his life. But then, no one was more a storyteller than Michelangelo or Rubens, and there's not the slightest doubt that they are among the truly great.

It may also have something to do with the subjects he painted, with his rather romantic treatment of the sea, forests, and mountains, and the people who lived near or within them. But I doubt it. I'm very partial to paintings of that sort. And besides, I've never believed that an artist's subjects determined whether or not he was great.

If anything, Homer's treatment of the sea is the strongest argument in his favor. No one else could capture its moods so precisely, and no one could so powerfully present its relationship to land as a metaphor for human existence. And neither could anyone else give such depth and significance to the great dramas of the sea, to stormy nights, rescues in the teeth of gales, lonely shipwrecks, and men standing watch on the North Atlantic.

And then, of course, he was magnificant with the sea at its most peaceful and serene, when fishermen hauled in their nets, or the moon glinted on nearby boulders and distant waves. His superb watercolors caught the quiet beauty of Maine lakes and streams, the hustle and bustle of waterfront activities, and most especially, the brilliant colors and clear sunlight of the waters and beaches of the Caribbean.

No, it's neither Homer's subjects nor his treatment of them that falls short. Nor was he lacking in technical prowess. There is no question that he was a superb painter and a complete master of his craft. I know of no work of his in which he didn't achieve a perfect balance of subject, form, and technique, and in which he didn't place the creation of art over the demonstration of painterly virtuosity.

My doubts about Homer's ultimate stature began several years ago after viewing a large retrospective of his work. I left it more impressed by his creative integrity than moved overall by his art. Since this was both an odd and an unsettling experience to one who had always been a nearly total fan, I went back to the exhibition several times to see if I couldn't sort out my reactions.

It became clear after my third visit that the exhibition as a whole wasn't as impressive as several of his individual works. And that, while a good 20 or so of his canvases moved me deeply, the show as a whole did not. It occurred to me that Homer had put everything he had into the most "perfect" realization of individual paintings, and relatively little into the shaping or articulation of an overall creative concept. His focus, in short, was on the immediate work, on its successful resolution, and much less on a larger and fuller vision of art. An exhibition of his paintings, as a result, became more a grouping of highly individualized paintings than a unified projection of a clearly perceived and fully realized idea, creative "vision," or formal ideal. Unlike a roomful of Rembrandts or Cezannes that is totally dominated by the artist's vision and character, a roomful of Homers tells us more about his subjects than about hism vision and character.

The only exceptions are the few truly magnificent seascapes in which nature is distilled down to its rawest and most elemental self, and primal forces in the form of rocks, wind, and water do continual battle with one another.

These paintings, I suspect, represent the essential Homer. A roomful of these paintings has an overwhelming impact, for they project the essence of his art stripped of everything not crucial to him.

There are elements of drama, even of crisis, in these works, which belong more to 20th-century than to 19th-century art. His 1894 oil "Weatherbeaten," for instance, points the way to Marsden Hartley's and John Marin's later paintings of the Maine coast, as well as to Franz Kline's painterly collisions of the Abstract Expressionist period.

One of the most remarkable things about Homer was the incredibly rapid rate at which he grew as an artist. His evolution from excellent illustrator to superb painter was swift and largely self-induced. And his movement then toward artistic greatness was steady and also inner-motivated.

My belief that he never quite achieved true greatness is not shared by many of my colleagues, some of whom consider him superior even to Eakins. And it certainly isn't an important issue with me. My respect for him and my profound enjoyment of his art have grown steadily over the years. In fact, if I were offered one American painting from all those produced so far, my choice would be one of his.

At the same time, we mustn't leap to the conclusion that certain works of art are great merely because they move us deeply. Greatness isn't established that easily. It is a rare and very special quality that eludes all but a minuscule number of artists every century, and that actually seems to skip some centuries altogether.

The 19th century was particularly rich in great painters, from Goya and Delacroix to Cezanne and Van Gogh. It certainly should be no embarrassment to acknowledge that the United States did not produce even one painter of that caliber during that century.

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