Buoyed by a Brilliant Ocean

'Breezing Up," by Winslow Homer, was one of the American master's most immediately popular paintings. Even his critics praised it. Almost habitually they castigated him for the roughness of his style, suggesting that the lack of finish meant he presented the public with nothing but "sketches." But their enthusiasm for this exhilarating image of boys (and one adult) in a small fishing boat, impelled through the waves by a brisk wind, was decided.

One critic, for example, while still carping about Homer's "customary coarse and neglig style," wrote that the painting "suggests with unmistakable force the life and motion of a breezy summer day off the coast. The fishing boat, bending to the wind, seems actually to cleave the waters."

Later in Homer's career, figures in boats out at sea became symbols of a far more doom-laden view of the world. "Breezing Up," or, as it was first titled, "A Fair Wind," was just the opposite. It was full of buoyant optimism.

Perhaps Homer's paintings of children were about his own childhood. These children are not sentimentalized, and his stylistic directness - which, though criticized, was seen as distinctly "American" - enhanced their believableness. Nevertheless, there is an inherent idealism about them. This ties in with their air of rustic outdoor well-being and with the awareness, particularly in 1876, the year of America's centennial, that youth was the true symbol of the nation. A writer in the New York Tribune observed that America was still "only in its childhood."

Thoreau had touched on the idea in "Walden" about 20 years earlier when he wrote (as much, surely, about America as about childhood): "Every child begins the world again, to some extent, and loves to stay out-doors, even in wet and cold." And, one might add, particularly in a boat.

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