`There is nevertheless something one likes about him'
IT is not unusual for an artist to gain recognition in different mediums and modes of art. Albrecht D"urer, for example, is as renowned for his illustrative wood engravings as for his paintings. What is unusual in the career of Winslow Homer is that his magazine illustrations, oil paintings, and watercolors occur more or less in successive stages, each coming after brilliant success in the one prior. Not only did the mediums change, but his subject matter also underwent radical shifts.
Homer's early illustrations were mainly crowded with vivacious young people, clad in elegant wardrobes, enjoying the outdoor and indoor recreations of the antebellum period. Many depicted urban settings of wealthy neighborhoods in Boston and New York City. These were followed by Civil War reportage. Homer utilized this subject matter in his first oil paintings. After virtually dropping his society themes, he painted pleasant rural genre subjects that often featured romping children.
In his third phase, to which the watercolor ``The Pioneer'' belongs, nature is more prominent than human beings although usually one or two men of a rugged, elemental type appear.
Possibly it was one of this Adirondack series that elicited a somewhat supercilious comment from Henry James, who wrote that Winslow Homer ``is almost barbarously simple, and to our eye, he is horribly ugly; but there is nevertheless something one likes about him. . . . He has chosen the least pictorial range of civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial, as if they were every inch as good as Capri or Tangiers; and to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded.''
We must agree with James that this mountain scene is nowhere near as picturesque as Capri or Tangiers; it does not even present an awesome spectacle of nature like Niagara Falls or the Grand Tetons as other American landscape painters were doing. Even to an admirer and future biographer of Homer, this scene appeared ``violent and crude, but pungent and powerful. Vivid light. Fresh and crisp. Cool bracing air. A rough bit of country.''
But the painter incontestably succeeds in making this casual scene, which might occur in a thousand places in the Adirondack Mountains, into an interesting and beautiful painting. It is a soft-lit day in spring, which comes late to the mountains. The main hill on the left is subtly modeled in thin green washes, the mountains beyond are blue with distance. Bright yellows and greens color the sunlit forest floor of the center ground, with darker greens in the shadowy foreground. The solitary woodcutter is a sober figure of browns and blacks. The jagged tree stumps are also brown.
Although the title of the painting is ``The Pioneer,'' and the sturdy figure seems to embody those qualities of strength and self-reliance that this word calls to mind, we are made to face with uncompromising realism a man-devastated forest. The year was 1900, and around the turn of the century the Adirondacks were being heavily overlogged. In fact, many small mountains were stripped bare of trees. Many small lumbering operations were not even financially successful while large ones prospered.
Careless cutting wasted a great proportion of the felled trees -- many never left the forest. Moreover, the devastation did not stop with the ax; cut-over woodland became tinder dry with the result that forest fires spread the denudation to uncut areas. Older residents still recall seeing whole mountains ablaze.
This painting is the last of Homer's many Adirondack watercolors. He loved the rugged beauty of these mountains and the fishing here. But lest it be thought that this is the final condition of the Adirondack forest, let me add that in a short time the forest began to renew itself, helped in some areas by earnest reforestation efforts. Scrub cherry, gray birch, and poplar, succeeded by hardwoods and evergreens, make up a second-growth forest that is now more dense at ground level than the uncut woods, and reclothes the hills and mountains in green.
The soft, moist Adirondack sky which Homer painted in a delicate, indescribable tint sheds its tender light over the new verdure. The sensitive handling of light is as much a hallmark of Homer's watercolors as it was of the French landscapists whose work he may have seen during a sojourn in Paris in 1867.
If one considers his watercolors by locale, one can see how important it was for him to capture the particular light of a place.
The brilliant sun of the tropics turns the sea into a vivid blue and a boat sails into a dazzle of white. The gray, windy beaches of the North Sea result in the somber paintings of the fisherfolk of Tynemouth, England. The cloud-filled skies of the Adirondacks with their ``cool bracing air'' vary slightly but distinctly from the sharper atmosphere of the Maine coast. All are painted with consummate mastery of a very difficult medium.
Queried about his talent, the artist replied with characteristic directness: ``There's no such thing. What they call talent is nothing but the capacity for doing continuous hard work -- in the right way.'' That may explain his prodigious output, but another quotation reveals the source of the beauty of his paintings and their lasting appeal. He once wrote in a letter from his sea-wind-swept studio on a rocky cliff in Maine, ``All is lovely outside my house and inside of my house and myself.''