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.


mariandioguardi.com said...

Also, what strikes me is the color differences between the two versions. Much of the green is eliminated by eliminating that mountain. In the foreground, reds are smuggled into the greens, making the foreground green a more harmonizing color choice than in the first green/red contrast rendition. Homer's decision in the first rendition to set up that red /green contrast is not as pleasing as his decision to harmonize.

Also,by giving the boys more foreground, he gives them the space they need to whip around. It tells the action of the story better.

Besides eliminating the extraneous boy, Homer eliminates a fallen hat by the knee of the second boy on the right along with some other cluttering detail on the far left. I call this "picking up the litter". And finally to tie this into yesterday's blog, the comparison today of these two versions demonstrates the reason to do thumbnails and work out design issues.

You mentioned Venice...Ahhh...Venice - every year there is more that I have to ignore in order to enjoy the city I love; more graffiti, chain stores, souvenir Venetian masks from China replacing the residential bakeries, mediocre and expensive food at most restaurants, fewer hardware shops, disappearing art galleries, no cats - all dogs on leashes.

I lived there for a month in 2002 and have been back five times in between..the changes from three and a half years ago are astounding. BUT above the ground floors of shops, Venice is Venice. Walking about at night with the sounds of silence you will see more of the city than you every will in the broad day light.

Robert J. Simone said...

Hearkening back to yesterday's comments and Mary's question about books that show armatures...Edgar Payne's Composition for Outdoor Painting has a lot of sample design armatures and thumbnail sketches illustrating them.

billspaintingmn said...

Ok, seriously I like the first version better!
The second may be more mechanically
successful, as you state, however the first recalls sunny happier times. I can 'hear' the kids laughing and playing!
The second one is robotic to me. It's an act, on track and no adlib.
I feel the first as spontanious and true.

willek said...

Hey, Marian... You can never go home.

Seems to me that in the second version, he has also established a greater distance between his sun struck and shadow areas... and he has darkened the objects against which the sun struck parts lie, tereby increasing their brilliance. I noticed the grass in the second one is warmer (redder) and darker. He seems to have adjusted for lowering the value of the grass, by making it warmer. By keeping the key of the medium and low value items low, he has plenty of room to make the lights pop.

Peter Hemmer said...

I can call you Stape, can't I? Discovered your blog and have been pecking away a little at a time, intent to read the whole thing(minus the boring parts):). Thank you SO much for sharing your wit, wisdom, knowledge, and insistance on the study of design & art history. Hope to be able to make one of your workshops one day.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I hope Venice isn't too compromised. I dream of returning there to paint again. I need about a month.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Good suggestion I forgot about that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The children in the first painting all grew up to be criminals and attorneys.
Had you known this I am certain you would not have held your opinion.,

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think so too, The value structure in the second one makes the figures pop. Do you think this picture owes something to the Elgin Marbles?

Stapleton Kearns said...

What boring parts? Geez

Peter Hemmer said...


haush=place you live in Germany when you have a lisp.