Winslow Homer at Harvard — A History of ‘Fake News’

Schooner at Sunset, 1880, by Winslow Homer. Transparent watercolor over graphite on off-white wove paper. (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.298. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.)
An excellent Fogg Museum show tells us media bias isn't recent.

Winslow Homer: Eyewitness is the new show at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Mass., on the campus of Harvard. Homer (1836–1910) always keeps giving, and this is one measure of his greatness. On the one hand, he’s rooted in tradition. He’s a Hudson River School artist in his focus on landscape and seascape, though the show makes clear that he’s a formidable figure painter, too. On the other, he’s not only modern but also fresh and responsive to our times. The show serves nicely as a Homer primer, among its fascinating areas of focus.

This show is about the news business in the 1860s in America and the way it molded Homer’s style. Americans have always been news-obsessed. Even in the 1840s and 1850s, our mostly frontier country had thousands of newspapers. Then, technology changed the news business constantly, and that continues today. And as the show deftly notes, fake news was not an occasional problem so much as an inherent vice.

Whenever you look at art by Homer, it’s worth remembering that he became famous as a newspaper and magazine illustrator from the late 1850s through the 1870s. He was a star illustrator of the two marquee news magazines, Harper’s Weekly and Harper’s Monthly, before the technology of mass producing a photograph was developed. And what made him more famous is his coverage of the biggest news story in America: the Civil War.

The show is a good balance of illustrations, watercolors, paintings, and photographs, and they’re not only separate media but reinforcing ones. News from the War, a Homer illustration that appeared in June 1862, is one of the early works in the show. Yes, Homer was covering a grisly war, but the eternally narcissistic news business — reporters like nothing more than a story about themselves — could take time to celebrate its own acumen in getting good stories from the battlefield to the hearth.

News from the War, 1862. From Harper’s Weekly, June 14, 1862. After Winslow Homer, engraved by unidentified artist. Wood engraving and letterpress on off-white wove paper. (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Ted Stebbins, 2018.163. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.)

Homer is a designer of genius. It’s seven vignettes, so it’s complicated. He organizes it through effective black and white contrasts and a cunning talent for using passages of symmetry and asymmetry to keep things both lively and moving in a coherent way. News comes by letter, bugle, word of mouth, the new technology of railroads, and, emphatically, via the gutsy reporter, who happens to be Homer himself.

The reality is that reporters rarely got close to battle. They were as aggressively spun and massaged then as now by generals and politicians. Homer was no exception. Sitting on an empty barrel, though, the sketching Homer suggests that he was indeed a witness. As the public’s eyes and ears, he felt the sadness and enthusiasm of the war and was uniquely positioned to convey it. Newspaper wars in the 1860s were fierce, with major outlets such as Harper’s claiming that competitors published fake news — not only false news but news they invented — as opposed to Homer’s on-the-spot observation and drawing.

Rebels outside Their Works, also from 1862, goes a step further. Set in Yorktown, Homer’s illustration depicts Confederate soldiers prowling the front line at night, for both sharpshooting and spying. Homer excelled at heart-pumping drama. As the war reporter, he’s shining a light on what’s happening at the front as much as Confederates were using torches to gather an information advantage. He creates a documentary sense of “you are there.” That’s what every good reporter does.

Homer is at his most effective and most modern as a story-telling minimalist. He’s a great designer and organizer of groups, but his best illustrations are the simplest. Sometimes his minimalism was required. Most of the media turf wars occurred over word counts and column inches. Good stories could be told with brevity. Our Watering Places — The Empty Sleeve at Newport appeared in Harper’s Weekly in August 1865. The war had ended a few months before. The work illustrated a story about a young soldier who came back from the war to discover that in his absence his wife had learned to drive a buggy. It’s a sweet tale of women’s liberation.

Our Watering Places—The Empty Sleeve at Newport, 1865. From Harper’s Weekly, August 26, 1865. After Winslow Homer, engraved by unidentified artist. Wood engraving and letterpress on off-white wove paper. (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of W. G. Russell Allen, M9323. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.)

Looking at the illustration, though, one can quickly see that it oozes with anxiety. The brightest white is the woman’s face. That’s where the viewer goes because it’s so bright. Her expression tells us she’s determined but terrified, and her grip on the taut reins underscores the point. Her husband’s face is sunken. Both faces are partially shaded, telling us that some things are ambiguous or unseen. Then we focus on the empty sleeve. He’s come back disfigured, an amputee. Homer is at his best in conveying a big, universal story, filled with pathos, through the smallest detail or nuance. This couple has a lot more to get used to than the wife having learned to drive a buggy.

The scene is set in Newport, even then a glittering summer-vacation spot. It might surprise that he did so many scenes of everyday women’s lives since Homer was among the most alpha of male artists. He loved to fish and hunt, never married, and lived mostly in the company of rich men, but given these things, he was a canny interpreter of bourgeois leisure, and that includes women’s clothing and women’s activities. Harper’s wasn’t only a news periodical. It was a lifestyle publication, too. On the one hand, this couple seeks the normalcy of a Newport vacation, the first since the shooting stopped. On the other, for them, nothing will be normal again.

The art in the show is almost entirely from the Fogg’s collection. Homer is one of those rare artists who almost never had a bad day, so everything is good. If I had to name its biggest stars, though, I’d have to pick the six Homer watercolors from the Fogg’s Grenville Winthrop collection. Winthrop was one of New York’s greatest collectors. When he died in 1843, his collection came to the Fogg. The gift came with so many restrictions that these works, great American and European things, almost never leave the Fogg.

The Winthrop Homer watercolors are gorgeous. They’re joined by five other Homer watercolors, and these are rarely seen as well. Homer started making watercolors in 1873, inspired by their on-the-spot immediacy. By the mid 1860s, he was painting in oil, but watercolor allowed him to develop his knack for showing the single, ephemeral moment for aesthetic goals rather than a newspaper’s goal to report the stories of the day.

Canoe in Rapids, 1897, by Winslow Homer. Transparent watercolor and graphite on off-white wove paper. (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Louise E. Bettens Fund, 1924.30. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.)

All the watercolors in the show are from the 1880s and 1890s. His palette is so various, with citrus colors used for his Caribbean scenes to dull grays, greens, and blues of his wild Maine and Adirondack pictures. Canoe in Rapids, from 1897, is Homer at his essentialist best. The rough forest landscape, cold gray sky, and roiled water is a triumph of efficiency and directness, each element of nature reduced to essential qualities. It’s beautiful but far from pretty. In most of his watercolors, he shows a hard, rough world. Even when he peoples them, the figures are subordinated to a natural world that’s timeless, vast, and uncontrollable. Nature’s rarely decorative.

The show is worth seeing for two of the Winthrop watercolors. Schooner at Sunset and Sailboat and Fourth of July Fireworks are both from 1880, a year Homer painted sunset and nocturne watercolors, mostly in Gloucester, Mass. I’ve seen these two a few times over the years, only because I lived near Harvard when I was a museum director in Andover. They’re so exquisite, so sublime, packing a big punch in a small package. I think of them like a dog thinks of food, which is a lot.

Why are they in a show about Homer in the news? For very smart, subtle reasons. The heart, and art, of the news business is chasing and capturing instants in time. The things that change are the things we read a newspaper to learn. It’s why we check our news sites a dozen times a day. Fireworks are ephemeral, though the bangs and lights are big. Even a sunset changes from second to second, and we know a great sunset starts slowly, evolves, but then the sun drops like a stone.

There are only three or four oil paintings in the show. The most famous and one of only two loans is Prisoners at the Front, from 1866. At that point, Homer was starting to paint big studio oils and moving into the high-art world. This painting has the feel of a newspaper illustration, which isn’t a slight. Its figures are clearly defined. Its design is close to a frieze, and that’s part of his newspaper vocabulary. Illustrations in newspapers and magazines usually don’t have much depth. Depth and recession are distractions. Newspaper illustration, then news photography around 1900, and, now, TV-news camerawork often present complex images, but they’re never too far from the direct look of billboards. The reporter has to snag the viewer, and one way to do it is privileging the surface.

Prisoners from the Front, 1866, by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Frank B. Porter, 1922, 22.207, TL42108. Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.)

It’s easy to read in another respect. Homer presents us with three Southern types: the reckless, arrogant Confederate cavalier, a Johnny Depp or James Dean type; a bewildered old man; and a poor, dumb country bumpkin, what Homer’s generation would have called a “Georgia cracker.” The cavalier caused the war, the bumpkin fought it, not knowing any better, and the old man reflects the desperation of the Confederacy in its dying days when it took everyone and anyone. He might have been a farmer or shopkeeper who became part of the Confederate supply chain. His best days are behind him, and that doesn’t say much that’s positive about the post-war South.

The Union soldier at the right is Francis Barlow, at age 30 a major general, fighting in a dozen battles, among them Gettysburg and Antietam. He was one of a handful of Union soldiers to start the war as an enlisted man and end it as a general. Homer was a fine figure painter and could paint very good portraits. Portraits are rare in his work, though. He didn’t want to go on the treadmill of painting the rich.

Barlow’s portrait shows Homer’s considerable prowess. Barlow was first in his Harvard class academically when he enlisted. He came from a newspaper background himself, working for the New York Tribune as an in-house counsel before the war. He was the war’s Audie Murphy, not quite as decorated and not a movie star, but a soldier often profiled in the press as both gentle and tough, honest, smart, and having no airs. He was the model WASP.

The show positions Barlow and the cavalier-type as modeling “a spirit of civil exchange and peaceful reconciliation, symbolizing the resilience of republican democracy.” I don’t agree with this. Our swaggering badass is indeed in the middle of the composition, giving him some primacy, but it’s a primacy driven by troublemaking. The cavalier class in Virginia and South Carolina especially — entitled, rich, narcissistic, and arrogant — dragged the South into the war and ruin. Barlow is shown in profile, looking like a Roman statue. A single Barlow — intelligent, cool, dignified, and commanding — was enough to best three Confederates. Homer chose to depict the famous Barlow as the symbol of the Union, with the three anonymous types representing the Confederacy, as if defeat deprived them of individuality.

I doubt the three Confederates were contemplating “civil exchange and peaceful reconciliation.” The South at the end of the war was flattened and surly. The widows of Ulysses S. Grant and Jefferson Davis might have taken tea and carriage rides together in New York in the 1880s, but broad reconciliation was in the air only for the 15 minutes it took Lincoln to deliver his Second Inaugural Address in 1865. The old man looks terrified and wants the earth to swallow him. His backwater colleague doesn’t look capable of thinking high fallutin’ ideas. The impudent buck seethes with unapologetic resentment.

I see the painting as celebrating hegemony, done in a reportorial style that Homer adapted to the realm of painting, enlarging it and indulging in the luxury of details such as specific regimental colors and uniforms. It’s Barlow who looks as though he has a future in this scenario, and he did. Later, he was the prosecutor who broke the Boss Tweed machine in New York.

This is the one quibble I have with an impressive, instructive show. It isn’t huge, but it’s intellectually rich and nicely organized in discrete, compact sections. It has a section on Civil War photography by artists other than Homer. Today, we know Matthew Brady’s powerful scenes of battlefield dead, but in the 1860s these images were not widely seen. Photography was too much of a niche medium. In any event, the federal government practiced extensive censorship of war news. Homer, as much as he was a documentarian, almost never showed the violence of war, but he rarely depicted jingoist valor, either. His scenes from the front cover the boredom of camp life, snappy uniforms, and, rarely, the confusion of battle.

The Army of the Potomac—A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, 1862. From Harper’s Weekly, November 15, 1862. After Winslow Homer, engraved by unidentified artist. Wood engraving and letterpress on off-white wove paper. (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Anonymous Fund for the Acquisition of Prints Older than 150 Years, 2018.238. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.)

Army of the Potomac — A Sharpshooter, from 1862, is the exception. Sharpshooters were part of many warring armies, but the Civil War was the first in which they were an organized, specialized part of the military. They were still controversial because they drained warfare of valor and courage. They were stealth fighters, picking the enemy off without a good fight. They reduced soldiers to the status of hunted animals. A soldier on the front could never feel safe if sharpshooters were in the neighborhood. When they were captured, sharpshooters weren’t treated as prisoners of war. They were routinely shot. Homer gives us close to an eyewitness view by putting us in the tree with the sharpshooter as he pulls the trigger. It’s a frightening image of brutal, sudden, anonymous death and, for Homer and every other war artist in the Civil War, a unique scene.

There’s good material on Homer’s illustration process. He started with drawings, then sent them to Harper’s printshop, which employed something approaching an assembly line to engrave the drawings on wooden blocks and later transfer them to metal plates suitable for mass reproduction.

The Fogg is one of the great museums in the country. Its collection is stupendous. I don’t hate its renovated building, which reopened a couple of years ago, since it’s impossible to wreck the home of so many great things, and it’s certainly modernized. The Fogg is what people call the Harvard Art Museums, once three separate museums now combined into one with a great new art-conservation lab. It’s been “Renzoed,” via an obscenely expensive, $450-million renovation designed by Renzo Piano. There was no reason — aside from ego — to hire a glamorous, expensive Italian architect to design what was almost entirely an interior revamp. The museum was almost totally closed to the public for five years, which is inexcusable. Access to Harvard students was so limited that, in effect, thousands came and went having little meaningful contact with the museum.

The Fogg was an old-time gothic-revival-meets-beaux-arts space, an accretion of odd but attractive old academic fads like sunken spaces and pilasters and friezes where you’d least expect them. I liked the idiosyncratic look, part comfy, part ratty, and part elegant. Renzo made it look like every other museum, which means it looks like a hospital. At least it’s light-filled, which is nice. Galleries for German art — one of the three museums was dedicated to that school — look good. Permanent-collection galleries are almost entirely painted white, which works for some things like ancient art but is otherwise a killer, especially in Old Master paintings galleries. I hope the wall colors aren’t Renzo-required.

The project was many years in the making, one reason it grew into a money pit. One idea, an entirely new site on the Charles River, was abandoned after a neighborhood furor. The building in this iteration was fraught with problems, leading to many delays. The financial crisis in 2008 caught Harvard in some endowment and capital-campaign shenanigans. I believe this slowed fundraising. During the time the museum was closed, the entire curatorial team was restructured and right-sized. This was good, since the Fogg had too many curators, but the changes contributed to a miserable mood at the place.

This has changed. It’s ruled by a new director, Martha Tedeschi, who has many things in her favor. She’s a print curator, which means she’s absorbed a zeitgeist of humility that’s refreshing at Harvard. Print curators experience endless slights because of the primacy of painting curators, but they’re often the finest connoisseurs, and I’ve met few who are prima donnas. She is a warm, reassuring presence. She was the print curator at the Art Institute of Chicago for years, a very functional place, and didn’t go to Harvard. Harvard, I know, is many different places but insularity is an easy ailment to acquire among Harvard natives.

The Fogg, like every department at Harvard, does its own fundraising. It’s a type of academic financing called “each tub on its own bottom.” During a big school-wide capital campaign, Harvard’s central fundraising office will help its constituents, but for operations — basically, supporting the annual budget — you’re on your own. I suspect that the Fogg’s new director has an enormous fundraising burden. Now that the Fogg has a revamped building, solving a decades-long menu of infrastructure problems, I doubt the central Harvard money machine will lift a finger to help the Fogg. The Fogg is considered done and no longer at the head of any lines.

I’m not sure how much of the Fogg’s fundraising went to meet the $450 million target for the Renzo project, how unexpectedly expensive it is to run this big boutique building where much is customized, or how much endowment money actually came in to support future operations. My impression from colleagues at the Fogg and Harvard is that it’s an unusually uneasy money moment. There’s nothing Tedeschi can’t handle. She’s the real thing. Donors will love working with her. Everything about her is quality.

The place has a newly positive spirit. The shows are good. Students are obviously much involved in the museum. That wasn’t always the case. With a permanent collection of 250,000 objects, the Fogg doesn’t need to do big loan shows. With the excellent Homer show and the other good permanent collection shows there, and a fantastic collection, it’s a joy to see the Fogg back in business.


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