Winslow Homer’s Art, through the Camera Lens

Detail of Eight Bells, 1886, by Winslow Homer, oil on canvas. (Gift of anonymous donor, Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA. Photography: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA / Art Resource, NY)
Bowdoin’s Museum of Art examines how the great painter made use of photography’s forensic powers.

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s show Winslow Homer and the Camera takes a perceptive, original look at one of America’s great art visionaries. It’s special for many reasons. It takes a much-considered artist — Homer (1836–1910) is among the gods atop the heap of American artists — and finally makes photography part of his artistic practice. It’s much more. Clever and entrepreneurial, the museum made its show a select retrospective of Homer’s work from the 1850s, when he started his career as a magazine illustrator, through his years as a painter of seascapes and scenes of everyday life reaching into the early years of the 20th century. The art is wonderful, drawn from Bowdoin’s own Homer-rich collection but also from other museums and private hands. These include Homer’s more-than-a-flirtation photographs, which are unusual and beautiful.

More broadly, the show examines, via Homer, a revolution in visual culture spurred by the advent of photography. Photography profoundly changed art making. Pioneered only in the late 1830s, it first figured in painting much as preliminary drawings did, as ways to explore compositional challenges and as memory assists. Photography also commenced the inundation of the public with images. People now experienced chunks of the world through pictures rather than words. This has only accelerated. The show also achieves the pinnacle of creativity that often springs from a distinctive slice of the art world in America: the college art museum.

But, first, Homer. He excelled in many media. His illustrations, watercolors, paintings, and photographs are pieces of a puzzle but also intersect and overlap. In the 1860s and 1870s, Homer was America’s most famous magazine illustrator. He was his era’s equivalent of a news photographer — mass-produced photography wasn’t yet possible. He understood concise messaging and was a genius at taking the mundane or the personal and making it universal. This is any good reporter’s most compelling talent.

His illustrations were so economically designed, so stripped of distraction, that his core message always hits home. His watercolor career starts with the medium’s on-the-spot immediacy. Immediacy is the raw material of the news industry. That’s why we buy a paper each day or, compulsively, check our favorite news websites. We want to know what’s fresh. His paintings are complex but look simple. They often depict fleeting moments at the pivot of some dramatic narrative twist.

The cliché “time is of the essence” seems to have Homer’s DNA through and through. His photographs show yet another facet of his overall vision. Like all of his work, they evoke a “you are there,” experiential sense in the viewer. But to create the feeling, Homer needed to adopt the posture of objective recorder, anonymous and passive but always ruthlessly looking. In this way, the camera and photography began to figure in his work.

In the early 1860s, Homer used photographs of Lincoln, the seceding Mississippi delegation in Congress, and Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration as models for his illustrations of news stories in Harper’s Weekly. He snipped details, added others, sometimes merging elements of several photographs into a new composite. During the Civil War, he drew from his own experience as a war artist but more critically from the battlefield photographs of Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner. Their cameras showed not battle itself — technically, battle was too fast-moving — but the infrastructure of battle, like its weapons, but also its aftermath, its frankly dead bodies and shattered landscapes. Photography froze details. What people such as John Ruskin saw as photography’s disadvantages, among them its lack of color and its flatness, were advantages to illustrators whose finished news products were black and white and with little depth, since that invites distraction.

When I was teaching art history, I always looked for ways to include The Sharpshooter, Homer’s 1864 illustration in Harper’s. The show focuses on an early version, his first painting, but the black-and-white wood engraving used for Harper’s is far more powerful. In the painting, color softens the impact of what is actually happening. The painting is small, so much so that it’s precious and nearly jewel-like. On a magazine’s page, the image seems bigger, and using black lines and white space, it’s more direct. The brutality of what we see is clearer: A hidden sharpshooter looks through telescopic sights, zooms toward an unknown target, who doesn’t know he’s a target, stalks him, and through the enhanced power of looking technology, blows him away, all in seconds. It’s a photographic way of looking. Homer might have just started using photography, but he evoked everything the sharpshooter saw and did through basic photographic tools.

Eight Bells from 1886 is arguably his most famous and majestic painting and one of many important loans in the show. One sailor in the middle of a storm looks through his sextant. Another records, proposing that the naked eye aligned with invented equipment could achieve unparalleled vision. The curator makes the good point that the two men together make a sequence. Homer’s love of series, best known in his hunting and fishing pictures, can be understood as sequences influenced by Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of moving men and horses from the late 1880s. These photographs were an art sensation in their day.

In the late 1890s and until he mostly retired from art making around 1906, he made photographs that are both rooted in tradition and very modern. The show has a nice group of these rare works. Most use the basic formula of luminist painting from the 1860s practiced by artists such as John Kensett: long horizontals and a tripartite composition of a foreground water feature, a strip of land, and a clear sky. They’re modern in their minimalism. They have no frills, no narrative or moral messages, and reduce human presence to small figures usually in a state of leave-taking. Their round format is intimate and elegant. It presents the kind of cropping challenge that Homer loved. Edges have an appealing blur, though Homer didn’t like his core subject to look as though gauze had covered the lens. Though it was possible by the 1890s to soften an image through manipulation of tone, he didn’t do it. Normally, but not always, he liked straightforward, even lighting, defined contours, and forms with sculptural weight.

Homer understood that photography created effects through technical manipulation. The show is very strong in positioning Homer in the middle of the medium’s quick technological development. His work in refining the heliotrope was important in making photography easier to use in mass-produced newspapers. But photography was also a pictorial philosophy. It privileged close looking, detail, and the very arbitrariness of life. Photographing a battle scene allowed only so much staging. Photographers such as Brady and Gardner sometimes dragged bodies to create better compositions, but the dead were still gruesome and the violence still palpable. Their photographs inspired Homer to treat war as he did. Homer is an unusual war artist. We don’t see heroic charges or much valor. Rather, we see the boredom of camp life and, in the show’s great painting, Skirmish in the Wilderness from 1864, the confusion and incongruity of battle come through. Photography cultivated his own spirit of inquiry and his passion for almost forensic looking, pushing him toward what he saw as a new, hyper-reality and truth.

Why is Winslow Homer and the Camera the kind of show at which college museums excel (and the Bowdoin museum is among the best)? First, it’s a deeply scholarly show whose starting point is esoteric. A museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as much a university as a museum, could and would do it but not as an anchor show because it would never drive paying attendance. The Homer show is specialized, though Bowdoin presents it as meaningful to students, scholars, and generalists. This is a trick in itself. Most college museums don’t bother to appeal to broad audiences. Their curators either don’t know how to do it or don’t care. Bowdoin does, on both counts.

The show isn’t strictly about art, though its concentration on photography technique appeals to artists. Like many shows at college art museums, it’s interdisciplinary. There’s material for art-history students, but history, English, theater, and psychology classes could also use the show, and enterprising curators and teachers might draw classes from other disciplines, too. It’s important to make the point that the primary audience of a college museum is the school’s students. Shows are driven by curricular needs. That makes for tangents. The show treats Homer’s African-American subjects, which don’t much implicate photography, but, alas, many college professors no longer know how to teach a class that doesn’t milk faddish race theory. It’s forgivable only because it brings some nice Homers to the walls.

The college museum is a distinctive American institution. In Britain, there are about half a dozen, Oxford’s Ashmolean and Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam the most famous, but here there are hundreds. The collections are sometimes encyclopedic like Princeton’s. Yale and Harvard have several museums, each with a specialty like paintings, prints, and decorative arts or musical instruments or rare books or dinosaur relics. Normally, though, a college or university will have one museum. Some collections are eccentric. These are the American college museum’s glories. Collections are often driven by the enthusiasms and procurement prowess of alumni. An old alumnus might have loved art during a narrow period, or ancient coins, or certain artists, each collected in depth. Bowdoin has great Homers in part because Homer lived in Prout’s Neck, south of Portland. The museum opened in 1894 while Homer was alive, and there are many family connections to the school and the region.

In the next few weeks, I’ll write about two or three other college and university art museums, exploring their new shows but also their weird governance issues, their relationship with the general public, their financing, and the Sturm und Drang sometimes generated by their relations with their school art-history and art departments.

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