Artists, historians and journalists are in for a treat over the next month as the Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale displays “Winslow Homer in America,” a comprehensive exhibit of Homer’s wood engravings, spanning the artist’s early years through his work during and following the Civil War.
Born in 1836 in Boston, Homer was hired as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly in New York City around the age of 21. He had apprenticed for a lithographer in Boston, but had very little formal training and was mostly self-taught. Fortunately, Harper’s recognized something in the young artist, and in the early 1860s the magazine sent Homer to the front lines of the Civil War, where he produced illustrations to accompany articles about the war.
Only a few of those works showed men engaged in battle, such as the gruesome “A Shell in Rebel Trenches” (1863) and one of his most famous images, “The Sharpshooter” (1862), which inspired the great oil painting “The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty” (1863). Many of his war pieces instead depicted the young men indulging in leisure activities at the camp, such as playing cards or football, writing and reading letters or enjoying nighttime entertainment. This allowed readers back home to imagine their loved ones in less gruesome circumstances.
It was a time when photography had yet to dominate magazine pages. Instead, illustrators such as Homer were provided with a framed block of boxwood, a small tree found in the Mediterranean with extremely fine grain and hard wood. The block would be sanded and covered with a coat of gesso, on which the artists would draw directly. Homer sketched his pieces on site at the front of the war, sending them back to New York where master engravers would painstakingly cut away the negative space in the wood.
After the war, Harper’s sent Homer to chronicle the lives of Americans living abroad. He returned to the United States from Europe in 1867 and took an interest in rural subjects, portraying the life and labor of farm dwellers. Again, Homer’s eye left no detail untouched. At the exhibit, don’t miss the reflection of children in the water in “Low Tide” (1870), or how the sun hits the man’s shirt in “Making Hay” (1872).
“This is where Homer’s foundation was; these were his most popular subjects and most beloved imagery,” says Reilly Rhodes, director and curator of Contemporary and Modern Print Exhibitions, a museum traveling service that organized the exhibition.
“They focus on leisure-time activity and America before and after the war in rural as well as urban settings. He focuses on activities that took place during the holidays,” Rhodes said. “For instance, there are 16 pieces that relate to sporting subjects. His entire focus in his themes during this period of time was well established.”
Homer’s work after the war is also credited with offering a keen glimpse into the evolving role of women in society. Rhodes points out that after the war, with a death toll estimated at between 620,000 and 700,000 men, schoolteaching and factory worker jobs increasingly fell to women. The change left women more liberated in their leisure activities as well, as seen in the bold, sometimes sultry engravings “The Picnic Excursion” (1869) and “The Bathers” (1873).
All in all, the exhibit features 118 of the more than 200 engravings Homer produced from 1857 through 1874, one year before he left Harper’s. In the 1870s, Homer became even more popular as a watercolorist and began to shift his attention more toward the natural world, especially to the seascapes for which he is so well known. (In 1998, Bill Gates paid $30 million for one of Homer’s last privately held seascapes.)
Homer’s early works, as seen in “Winslow Homer in America,” did not enjoy a revival of attention until later, according to Rhodes. “The interesting thing is that these objects were not even collected until the American bicentennial in 1976, when museums began to look for themes appropriate to the bicentennial,” he says. “Then, Homer seemed to be the one that best captured the American spirit in 1876.”
Joan Adan, exhibit designer at Forest Lawn, says Homer is her favorite American artist. “This early work is where Homer’s personality comes out best,” she says. “The composition and detail truly create a story. It’s a snapshot of what life was like before and after the Civil War.”
In person, the Homer engravings do not fail to impress. From the depth of expression on even the most marginal figure to the texture of buildings and the throw of light, the images in “Winslow Homer in America” demonstrate why Homer has had such an enduring reputation as one of America’s most beloved artists.
“It’d be hard to find painters today that focus on contemporary society and realism, but Homer was there at the right time,” says Rhodes. “One hundred years earlier he would have been isolated to painting portraits if he would have been known at all today.”