Above is a Winslow Homer, and below the William Trost Richards that I posted last night. Below that again is another Homer. I said last night that I thought the Homer was artistically a far greater work of art. I want to go a little deeper into that idea tonight. Let's see if I can wring from it a little insight into what things put a painting in the top echelon and what things might keep it from there. What follows is, of course, only my opinion, but you can trust me, I'm a professional.
The Richards are great painting, and I have studied his seascapes a lot. I love Richards and before you log on to defend him, remember I think his paintings are wonderful. But I think Homer is a greater artist. Here, in my clip are some bullets, (plus one in the chamber) let me see if I can explain why I think that.
- Great paintings tend to be simple, the detail that is in a painting like this Richards is less poetic than the spare breadth of the Homer. That simplification gives the Homers a magnificence and monumentality that the more complicated Richards lacks.
- There is something like classicism in the Homers, I don't mean of the doctrinaire sort, but the large simplified masses and lack of small information remind me of Ingres or Raphael in the boiling down of the image to its essentials. There is something in the general that speaks more directly to us than the specific, it is more universal and reads more like memory than observation. That slight avoidance of the literal gives the paintings a slightly otherworldly feeling. We subconsciously react to that as being a different type of vision, the paintings seem less matter of fact. We are seeing in a different more exalted manner, and we are aware of that.
- The simplicity of Homers handling elevates his pictures too, There is a dignity and a reserve they have, that makes the Richards flashy handling and bright effects seem a little brassy. The Richards seems a little too colored and a little too Kodachrome. Richards painting gains in immediacy, but loses something in long contemplation.
- Homers designs are spare and have enormous carrying power, they would work as a stamp design or could be "read' from a block away. The more big shapes are chopped up with little marks and detail, the more their carrying power is reduced. His designs are stripped to their essentials and the result is boldness and clarity. It also makes them easy to look at for long periods of time. I think detail in a painting is consumable. We use up the enjoyment of it and the painting becomes less interesting. Great design seems to endure for us to enjoy.
- Homers color is a little austere and that helps move them into the great category, we all can cite an example of a painter whose color is ridiculously happy and major key, the painting that tries too hard to be liked and gaily appealing. At the other end of this continuum are paintings that don't flash a little skin at you or swish their hips too much.
- Homers paintings of a wave are iconic, they are every wave, the Richards carefully describes a particular wave. The Richards is smaller in its conception. Ironically, I would guess that Richards knew a lot more about the "hydraulics" of the ocean. His wave anatomy is always understood, his waves are technically better, but technique is second to poetry and the Homers have that to burn. There is a weakness in naturalism, perhaps because we see that way all the time or because it is matter of fact. No great painting could be mistaken for a window. Richards is a journalist. Homer is a poet.
- Homers designs are unexpected and original, the Richards is a default seascape design, it is a template and he plugged lots of pictures into it. It is a relatively conventional view painted with astonishing skill. The Homers are all unique, they are all different from one another and from everyone else's seascapes too.
- It is evocation and not description that takes a picture to the level of greatness, the 19th century was full of artists who could render astonishingly well, and who are today forgotten. There was a system for teaching that, which is now lost. I don't mean to dismiss technique, only that it is expected as a tool, but is not in itself the end. Just as having a command of vocabulary and grammar is essential to being a writer, it is more important to have something extraordinary to say.