4 out of 4 stars
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Winslow Homer, From Poetry to Fiction – The Engraved Works (2017) by Reilly Rhodes is an exquisitely crafted book of art reflecting the vast knowledge and passionate research interest of a genuine connoisseur. Devoted to the analysis and interpretation of the monochromatic graphic work of America’s most beloved artist of the nineteenth century, the book does not only regale the experts in the field, but also pleases the bewildered eyes of all those who find art a veritable pleasure and inspiration. The eight comprehensive chapters include no less than 485 illustrations consisting of reproductions of wood engravings created for publication in the pictorial press, watercolors, paintings, historical photographs and works by other artists of the time.
Beginning his extensive research in the mid 1990s, Reilly Rhodes spared no efforts to demonstrate that Winslow Homer (1836-1910) lived for his art and could be rightfully considered the greatest American artist of the nineteenth century. The book is by no means dogmatic; on the contrary, the author’s tone is persuasive and thought-provoking. With a reader-friendly approach and wonderful explanations about both Homer’s life and work, Reilly Rhodes rises up to the challenge of making art accessible to the general public. The author’s greatest merit is to have examined an often overlooked and underrated body of work from the artist’s early career. Another element of originality is the inclusion of tintypes which have never been exhibited or published before, but resemble Homer’s subjects and models in his engravings between 1857 and 1875.
The book is not only about Winslow Homer; it is about an entire historical epoch and the artistic representation of the emergence of America’s own national identity. Accompanied by an exhibition of the same title, it focuses on Homer’s transition from popular illustrator to fine artist. His wood engravings express a large variety of thematic areas covering different social, cultural or political aspects of nineteenth century America. Reilly Rhodes identifies 13 such thematic areas: The Apprentice Years; Early Portrait Work; Leisure Time Pursuits; Rural America; The War Years; Holidays; The Sporting Life; Courtship and Romance; Seaside Views; America’s Youth; The Changing Role of Women; Urbanization and Society; Poetry and Literature. Although influenced by the Hudson River school which celebrated pastoral landscape painting, Homer preserved its unique style and strived to produce art which would be imaginative, aesthetic and intellectual in its content.
Winslow Homer’s wood engravings represent invaluable historical resources. Reading the book, I had the amazing chance of discovering an extraordinary artist. More than that, Reilly Rhodes painted in words an incredible fresco of the transformative years of American society brilliantly depicted by Winslow Homer in his engravings. In the chapter The American Scene, the author describes Homer’s struggle to portray the virtues of the American people and the ordinary realities of everyday life. After a time of artistic experimentation, the late 1870s and 1880s find Homer inspired by the Barbizon school whose artists sought to paint directly from nature and recognized the value of working plein air. The chapter Winslow Homer: Imagination and Innovation relies on the reasons behind his popularity and the all-encompassing nature of his engravings.
One of the things I appreciated most was Reilly Rhodes’s keen eye for details and the impartiality of his comments. For example, in the chapter Fashion, Style and Indulgence, he notices the artist’s penchant for recording the events associated with the members of the upper and middle classes (see March Winds, 1859; April Showers, 1859; The Morning Walk – The Young Ladies’ School Promenading the Avenue, 1868 or On the Bluff at Long Branch, at the Bathing Hour, 1870). However, he also mentions Homer’s engravings Watching the Crown (1868) and Snap the Whip (1872) which show children with patched and threadbare clothing indicating that not everyone belonged to the rich and affluent segment of society. The chapter Civil War – The Embedded Artist draws on Homer’s experience as a commissioned artist by Harper’s Weekly. His early war subjects centered mainly on camp-life activity and even his later depiction of war scenes was heroic and idealized in Napoleonic style. I prefer the more solemn engravings Home from the War (1862) showing Civil War veterans returning to their families and The Veteran in the New Field (1865) illustrating a Union soldier reaping the wheat with a scythe and evoking the Grim Reaper and the image of Kronos, the ancient Greek god of harvest associated with the destructive passage of time.
In the chapter Beginning of a New Era, the author praises Homer for perfecting his style, probably due to his French experience. Among his earliest paintings I particularly like The Bridle Path, White Mountains (1868) and White Mountain Wagon (1868-69). The last two chapters, The Disappearing One-Room Schoolhouse and Postscript Dutch Immigrant Discovery in Winslow Homer Engraving, tackle in detail some of the most famous and interesting wood engravings and paintings signed by Winslow Homer. Although Snap the Whip (1872) is the best-known, my favorite are The Noon Recess (1873) and Taking Sunflower to Teacher (1875). The former shows a meditative teacher looking out the window and a boy reading in the classroom rather than playing with his peers outside. The latter portrays a young black boy wearing tattered clothing and holding a single sunflower to bring to his teacher. The watercolor is exceptional because of its symbolic meaning since the boy represents the new generation. Other engravings I loved were Our Watering Places – The Empty Sleeve at Newport (1865) and Cutting a Figure (1871). They both allude to the changing role of women in the Post Civil War period. Finally, Homer’s last wood engraving, The Family Record (1875) hints at multiculturalism, America’s greatest asset.
With enthusiasm and reverence for the author’s professionalism, I am rating this book 4 out of 4 stars. The second half of the book also includes reproductions after 231 of Winslow Homer’s wood engravings organized by date of publication. The novelty of the approach resides in the interpretive information attached to each and every one of them. Moreover, the engravings are paralleled with identified models of the time. The exhibition checklist by subject and theme, the list of books and publications illustrated by Homer and the biographical and bibliographical references round up a truly exceptional book. First and foremost, I recommend it to all people who love art and are interested in art history; they would be lucky to have this wonderful book on their bookshelves. More specifically, the book will appeal to museum directors and curators, scholars and historians, art and photography students, collectors and researchers. They will most definitely reach the same conclusion as the artist’s contemporaries: “Mr. Winslow Homer’s beautiful picture… is a poem in itself.”
Winslow Homer from Poetry to Fiction
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