Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Snap the Whip
Here, painted in 1872 is one of the pieces which because of its wide distribution as an engraved illustration in Harpers secured Winslow Homer a s the top American artist. This painting is from the same populist sentiment that Mark Twain drew upon in the Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn books only a decade later. Homer, who never married or had children has by this time built a popular career as a presenter of children at play and imitating the tasks they will preform when soon they become adults in Americas working class as fisherman or farmers. With the beginnings of Americas heavy industrialization these children were beginning to be seen as remnants of an endangered society, a growing number of their generation were already working in the mills of the exploding industrial cities. The red schoolhouse was an icon of American culture by that point and the games of the boys were familiar and nostalgic to most of its viewers. This is the first version, the second and smaller version is below.
The second version is much more effective. Homer has removed the mountain, in the "improved version the boy is thrown by the force of the whip out into a distance that really recedes. Its a long way out there. There is also an extraneous boy removed out there on that end of the line. The horizontality of this version vastly increases the speed and force of the boy's snapping whip. The first version has a balance of horizontal and vertical thrust in its design. The lower version sweeps the viewer along its breadth. Homer has also pushed the boys a little further back into his pictorial space and that aids his effect too.
After a generation of "still" transcendental paintings by folks like Lane and Gifford, this painting is just the opposite. It has a raucous and violent action rippling across its middle. The value structure in the second version is also improved, Homer has used darker values behind his figures in order to better pop them out . The lower picture is far more exciting than the first.
Above I have highlighted a Homer design device he was to use repeatedly during his career, lets call it rhyming pairs. See how each pair of two boys have their legs in matched positions. That installs a formal yet subtly hidden geometric rhythm, a visual arpeggio of repeated couplets. I will point this "couplets" device out in some more Homer as we continue.