Thursday, June 24, 2010

Homer's men at sea

This painting,"The Lookout" is one of Homers best known works. It is an extremely decorative and oriental design and is painted in Earthen reds and gray and black.The color of the sky above the sailors head is a foreboding indigo. The piece has rich darks and hot lights. The austere seriousness of the color scheme is in keeping with the drama of the scene, the color is part of the "concept "of the piece, it is not observed into being, but contrived as part of the overall effect.This is primal and epic subject matter.

Homer must have been thinking of Rembrandt too. Either way it's a masterpiece. It is way beyond being an observed slice of nature, it is a machine that makes us feel a certain way. I often think most complex allegories in painting end up being obscure or unattractive. When the message is so simple it might be a single word like, bravery or courage or endurance I think a picture is more likely to work.

The touch of white off the rail lets us know this is rough weather and this is not a pleasant sail on a summer's day, but a desperate battle against the sea. As I said in a previous post, Gloucester lost 10,000 men at sea in her 350 years as a fishing port. Sometimes storms took whole fleets and hundreds of men into the deep. Whole crews spent entire storms out in the spray, beating the ice from their ship and its lines with axes and sledgehammers to keep the weight of ice from capsizing their them. American commercial fisheries today still lose 115 men out of every 100,000 each year. Fishing is probably the most dangerous occupation even now.

The painting below tells a story;

This paintings oil clad rescue crew are hauling a boat through the dunes to reach the survivors of a wreck at sea. This painting is a great example of the use of negative spaces. I will return and do a post on this ones design as I think it particularly smart.

These sailors are preparing to lower a boat into that maelstrom sea to rescue a doomed boat on the horizon. Most of the fisherman of that age never learned to swim, their attitude was that it would just prolong your suffering. If you went overboard it was best to drown quickly. You would be instantly carried off and lost in a sea like that, rescue of a man in the water was very unlikely. Their heavy boots and oilcloth coats were heavy when full of water anyway, so going over the side meant death in heavy weather.

The schooners carried dories that went out from the ship to set and haul nets, often the task was to encircle a school of fish with the net by rowing a few small boats around it. If a fog bank came in, and you could no longer hear the ships bell. you were lost at sea. That happened routinely.

These fishing subjects provided Homer with a monumental and "important" theme to make art that had a sternness and dramatic weight, making the work of many other artists of the era look like puffery and foolish gaiety.

Below is a doryman alone with a big halibut, rowing back to the schooner. Homer shows an incoming fog bank behind the safety of the ship below. What weird shapes he put into that tortured front, big spiky shapes, one of which hits the rabbet at the top of the picture. What supreme confidence Homer had to put something that strange in, and knowing that it worked, leave it.


barbara b. land of boz said...

It is another home run for Homer.
This man had such a way about his
use of color. No boring same oh
same oh color in his works. So much
excitment and feeling. I thank you
once again Stapleton. This world is
more colorful because of people
like you and Homer..........

Barbara Carr said...

My great grandfather was a fisherman out of Gloucester. I never knew him, but these paintings tell the stories I missed. Thanks for the reminder, Stape.

Barbara Carr said...
This comment has been removed by the author. said...

From Wikipedia:
Of his work at this time, Henry James wrote:Breezing Up (A Fair Wind),1876, oil on canvas(National Gallery of Art,Washington,D.C.)[17]

"We frankly confess that we detest his subjects...he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial...and, to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded." [18]

As an artist you have to do what you will do. People will think what they will think. Time will tell.

I spent several Decembers in Tyne on Wear and along the North Sea coast and because of that, Homer's series from that area and time are my favorite.

billspaintingmn said...

Powerful Dramatic True. These were the movies of the day,his Boldness
to bring this to the viewer makes him Champion in his field.
I'm learning a lot of stuff at this blog Stape!Thanks for waking me up to this!
Should American Art return to its roots, or at least reflect it?

Anonymous said...

Hi Stape,
Catching family came out to the NW territory after the Civil War. I have a great picture of my grandmother and I hunting, she taking aim (showing me how it's done!) she 86, I 43! It's a time mostly gone even in the NW, most places are posted. Fell in love with painting looking at duck calenders and the Sat Evening Post.
I love these pictures. Did Homer do all his outdoor studies in watercolor? Did he than use them and memory to design his studio paintings in oil?
Thank you for all the time you put into this, it's my morning art lesson. You set a great curriculum. Terry

Todd Bonita said...

Wow! I've seen all of these before but it's humbling and inspiring every time.

Nancy said...

Terry presents a good question I'11 take it one step further by asking:
Did Homer actually live these experiences and record what he witnessed first-hand or did he plan and design his paintings within the warm protected walls of his studio using references and models? I've oftened wondered about his "process" of creating such unforgetable works of art. Love these blogs on Homer, thanks Stape !

Unknown said...

outstanding post, Stape. I never fail to be amazed at the amount of information you provide in this blog.
Thanks. These are incredible paintings. Why is it that most of what is done today doesn't even come close? Should we all just give up and take up knitting instead?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. Never put me in the same sentence with Homer again.

I am a somewhat overachieving dweeb who can paint some, plus, type. Homer was a giant. If America had a Rembrandt,it was Homer.

Stapleton Kearns said...

There are a lot fewer fisherman there now.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Henry James has been proven wrong. Although we have the benefit of hindsight I still don't see why he didn't get it. Writers about art say things that makers of art think ridiculous. Happpens all the time.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Some of us should return to our roots, that's important.I would like to see enough painters doing that to make a viable "section" of the art world. But there are lots of other worthwhile things to do also.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will address that soon. The short answer is that the watercolors seem to be stand alone, and the oils different pictures.

Stapleton Kearns said...

They are humbling. I feel a growing awe, the more I look at them.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will write about that, but not tonight,soon. Good question!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks. I guess you have to be the best artist you can be and enjoy that. You could go crazy trying to compete with the like s of Homer. Its cool to be in a band, even if you never become the Beatles.