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Winslow Homer: An American Icon


The painter who emerges as the one most closely integrated with the American scene, painting it in an American spirit in the second half of the century, was Winslow Homer (and Thomas Eakins). A contemporary of the French impressionists, Homer was a realist of the highest order. He shared with the impressionists a preoccupation with country scenes or bourgeois life, but instead of training his own sensitivities to accord with a European vision, he remained an American who explored his own country and, more important, the character of his fellow Americans. The fact that Homer painted American people engaged in typically American activities is relatively unimportant. What is important is that he explored beneath American surfaces to discover and express the psychological nuances that differentiated America from Europe.

Homer made only a moderate success in the picture market; the big prices during his long life went to more conventional work than his. Yet today it takes a moment to see where his unconventionality lay. It lay in the same quarter as that of the early impressionists'. Homer's first important pictures, notably Glouster Farm, have the same interest in natural outdoor light, represented with much the same sparkle and economy, as Monet's early work or Boudin's. But the resemblance is coincidental; there is no real probability that Homer knew the work of either of these two men at that time.

While his pictures sold at low prices, Homer continued to make ends meet by commercial work, such as book and magazine illustration. His early work was entirely of his nature; he had covered the Civil War as a pictorial reporter for Harper's Weekly, and his first oil painting, Prisoners from the Front is a suprisingly satisfactory painting in these circumstances, but in comparison with the pictures that now begin to follow it, like Glouster Farm, it is still pictorial journalism. Yet, in the end, Homer produced some of the purist
impressionistic work of his time.

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