Friday, June 18, 2010
Winslow Homer in Gloucester, Massachusetts and some digressions, one personal, others not.
Above is a shot of Gloucester from the late 20's, but I think it probably looked much like this in Winslow Homers time there. That's the town hall in the background with the clock tower. It was brand new when Homer arrived. In the front entrance is a hall, engraved on the walls are many of the the names of 10,000 men who have been lost at sea fishing out of Gloucester.
Most of the waterfront in this picture was torn out by urban renewal in the 1960's, there is very little left from even as recently as Gruppes time there. What a great place to paint it must have been. I used to paint there a lot when the wooden dragger fleet was still on the water in the 80's, there is not a single eastern rigged dragger left. The last to float was the 120 ft. Vincie N. built in 1927.
illustrations from the-athenaeum.org
Homer made two trips to Gloucester, the first was in 1873 and he stayed in a hotel, the second visit years later, he stayed out on Ten Pound island with the lighthouse keeper. The first trip produced the paintings I am showing tonight. He worked a lot in watercolor. That was new to him and it was unusual. Today we think of watercolor as an artists medium but at that time it was often thought of as a medium for amateurs and for ladies from the finishing schools who were taught to be able to do a little watercolor painting as part of their refinement ( a practice I wish would return)
The Homer watercolors of this trip are done over pencil sketches and have an immediacy and directness to them. So many have imitated the style of these that we assume that they are just how a watercolor ought to look. But they were more original than that, they are fresh and fluidly handled. Most American water colors before this tended to look more like oils and had less transparent and natural color. It was often done using China white, a then commonly used opaque pigment that often spoiled the transparent and immediate look of the paintings.
Homer painted lots of pictures of children playing on the water front with his new watercolors. I guess I get to throw in a personal story here, it IS my blog. Back in the mid 70's I was working one day a week at the Guild Of Boston Artists. The director called to me and said "Stape want to see something interesting?" She then handed me Winslow Homers watercolor kit, with the cakes of paint still in it. It was black metal and I think I remember it being somewhat cylindrical. Whether it was the same kit he carried in Gloucester, I don't know. I remember thinking at the time how odd it was for me to be holding the kit that Homer had carried, sort of magical. Someone must have left it to the Guild, but I don't know who. There is a lot of art history in New England.
There is no doubt about where Homer wanted you eye to go in this piece the rough boards in the foreground and that ramp up to the boat haul us in like struggling halibut.This shipbuilding scene is from that trip and although titled "Shipbuilding in Gloucester" it probably is of nearby Essex, where most of the schooners that sailed from Gloucester were built. The Story boatyard still builds wooden boats on the same spot as it has since 1813. The shipbuilding museum is small and funky but is worth a visit, it is a great place to paint. Buy a membership when you are there, since you are painting on land they maintain, they keep a pretty good set there and need the support. They are welcoming to artists and I hold them in high esteem. They also have a real Gloucester schooner the Evelina M. Goulart, preserved and up on stocks. It is huge and all wood of course.
Here is an oil of the same period, although done in the studio most likely after the trip.
This must have been painted on Bass rocks, or the backshore as the locals call it.
These two boys are carrying their catch past a location that I think I recognize as Rockport, if I am correct the Motif number 1 is just out of the picture to the right. There are a lot of places in Gloucester-Rockport, (they both occupy the tip of Cape Ann) that look like this though.
Isn't this a lovely little painting? I love the color in the dress in the foreground. Homer is at his best in this design. Its such a simple little thing, but there are about a zillion pictures of girls out in fields that are nowhere near as good. Proving once again it isn't what you paint but how you paint it that matters.
This watercolor from that trip is the root of a piece that was to become an American icon called Breezing Up. I will show you that tomorrow night.