Of course we were both right. Take, for instance, "Eastern Point," a four-foot painting from 1900. It's a view of the ocean over rocks on a windy day. There's a strong sea running, with breakers well off the shore that spray high as they reach the rocky shingle. It is, for anyone who has spent time in a spot like that, entirely convincing. The colors are right, the action is right, the light is right, and the mood is right. It's a day to sit safely back from the edge and meditate on one's place in the greater scheme of things.
'ON A LEE SHORE' Oil on canvas by Winslow Homer, 39 by 39 inches, 1900.
As you get closer to the painting its artifice gets clearer. The brushwork is loose and easy, nearly without fine detail. Yet the sense of correctness is maintained even as you see little spots that are just daubed on. They are right, and they are real. While somewhat lost in this painting I thought of an experiment: I made a small frame with my hands and cropped out most of the painting, just looking at a small area. What I saw could have been an abstract painting that any artist would have been proud of. As I moved my little frame around, the same effect occurred. No matter where you look on that painting the internal rightness is still there.
Homer harnessed this skill to capture this sense of place to send his clients. It was how he saw his job. But there's more — an implicit narrative poetry pervades this work with no characters, no action, no history, and no possible futures to consider. It exists as a metaphysical statement of human experience of nature, at once exhilarating and frightening. They are imbued with love and fear, and as viewers we can share that experience in comfort, at a safe remove.
The implied danger that is often present in Homer's work is made explicit in "On a Lee Shore," 1900. The set of the sails of the schooner just offshore shows the wind is blowing toward the rocks, exactly the situation no sailor wants to be in. The narrative is clear, there's significant danger, but no way to know how things stand. Maybe the skipper knows these waters and his craft and will make his mooring safely. Or not. Again, the mood of the drama is heightened by the colors and the composition, with sea breaking over the rocks on the left and spray shooting up to the top of the picture. The fine details are suggested, not drawn; the effect is to make the whole more compelling.
Homer applied a classical dignity to his human subjects, giving them roles in the larger theater of his setting. The pensive girl carrying nets and shading her eyes as she looks along the foggy shore in "The Fisher Girl" could be placed in any sort of setting — in Boston, say, or Athens. The two men taking their noon navigational observation with their sextants in the famous "Eight Bells" are simply at their work, while beyond them sea and sky go on more or less forever. It doesn't matter whether they're on a routine merchant voyage or under the command of Ahab on a mission to the heart of the universe — the job, danger, and grandeur are the same. And we as viewers are warm and dry, and gratefully ready to go back to our ordinary lives.
"WEATHERBEATEN: WINSLOW HOMER AND MAINE" | at the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland | Through Dec 30 | 207.775.6148