Winslow Homer's most pivotal decade

As countries around the globe fight off the reach of American popular culture, it's hard to remember a day before film or TV, when the United States was still in search of a popular art form to call its own. But at the turn of the 20th century, artists from coast to coast were convulsed with an effort to throw off what they considered stifling European influences.

Painters, not screenwriters, were at the forefront of this fight. Of the many artists to drive that movement forward, Winslow Homer was one of the leaders.

A new show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) "Winslow Homer and the Critics: Forging a National Art in the 1870s" examines a key decade in Homer's life during which he was searching for an identity as an American artist. He found and began to cultivate the new techniques and subject matter that a rising generation of American artists would use to establish a uniquely native art form.

"Homer was an important hinge figure," says Bruce Robertson, chief curator of the LACMA Center for American Art. "This is the decade in which American art ceases to be merely narrative and becomes real painting."

Homer's own career embodied this transition. He began as an illustrator for popular magazines. The exhibition also demonstrates that, contrary to popular mythology about one of America's most loved artists, he was not a solitary figure, especially during his formative years.

His interest and involvement with art trends and art critics, in particular, was passionate - and greatly influenced the course of his artistic development.

This active dialogue between critic and painter also serves to vindicate his place as an important American artist.

"Through his response to the critics, you can see the strength of his mind and vision," Mr. Robertson says.

To drive the point home, the nearly 60 paintings and watercolors in the galleries are surrounded by the positive and hostile comments of his critics.

"We frankly confess that we detest his subjects.... He has chosen the least pictorial of the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization.... it is damnably ugly," wrote one critic of "The Course of True Love." Another wrote of "Milking Time" that the fence gave "the whole composition the 'tender grace of a gridiron." The New York Daily Tribune dubbed Homer "a reformer and a brave one," while the Art Journal of June 1876 said, "It is impossible to deny Mr. Homer's genius; it is equally impossible to always be satisfied with what he puts on canvas."

His treatment of five subjects - women, children, African-American life, the farm, and the wilderness - explored national and contemporary themes using experimental and conventional styles. His effort to push the boundaries either stylistically or thematically developed in response to the critical feedback he received.

Through this dialogue, says curator Margaret Conrads of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., the exhibition organizer, "you get a sense of how we got from tightly rendered landscapes to the 1890s American art that was exposing the figure and landscape with the style and subject integrated."

This transition from tight rendering to a freer style is most evident in Homer's watercolors, in which a certain sketchiness was more easily acceptable by the critics.

The show successfully examines the development of an artistic identity both for a young country and an important American artist.

'Winslow Homer and the Critics' is at LACMA through Sept. 9. In October, it travels to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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