On the road with Homer Watson

ROADS, lanes, footpaths -- in drawings and paintings they fascinate me. Where do they start? Where do they end? And if there are people on them, are they traveling forward in hope and expectation, away from somewhere in profound relief, or just routinely from Point A to Point B and back again? Homer Watson was on the road, in a manner of speaking, a great deal of the time. From the village of Doon, Ontario, where he was born, he journeyed to Toronto, New York, and London, never quite sure, it seems, where he belonged or where it was best for him to be.

Having taken the road to New York in the late 1870s, Watson became acquainted with the landscape painter George Inness, and much like Inness he sketched and painted along the Susquehanna and Hudson rivers and in the Adirondacks.

Toronto beckoned Watson back, and on his return he found that his paintings were in demand in high places. Princess Louise bought one for her aunt, Queen Victoria. Oscar Wilde, who was touring North America in 1882, ``discovered'' Watson, declared him to be ``the Canadian Constable,'' commissioned a work from him, and promised to guide him through the intricacies and complexities of the London arts milieu should he decide to try his hand in England.

Watson took the high road to London in 1887. He delivered Wilde's painting. Wilde introduced him to the celebrated James McNeill Whistler. And Watson was to see, hanging in the reception room at Windsor Castle, the painting bought from him by Princess Louise.

The artist and his wife spent three years in England. Something happened to his art during that time. Art historian Dennis Reid has said, ``His new concern was with style as an end in itself: effect, breadth of handling, unified treatment, sweeping movement,'' but ``no magic of place.''

Homer Watson returned to Canada and to Doon. In his own words, ``After some years of restless wandering in quest of adequate media of expression in art, a desire took possession of me to live again where I knew great quiet would blend itself luxuriously with the schemes I was developing for my painting. . . .''

The restlessness didn't abate, however, and Watson wandered on, traveling back and forth between Doon and London and around and about. While he was to have successful solo shows in London and New York, the ``schemes'' he hoped to develop -- said to be a notational style of painting capturing qualities of light -- never really caught on.

``The Stone Road,'' which he painted in 1881, harks back to his happier, naively confident days at Doon. You see in it projection of detail, infinite compositional care, and ``magic of place.'' It's a labor of unusual concentration and determination.

For most of the way along his personal road Homer Watson knew only where it started. He traveled it in hope and expectation toward the unknown. It kept turning him back -- out and back, out and back. As things turned out, his road began and ended at the village of Doon.

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