Winslow Homer Dualities

Rather mind-blowing that the Art Institute of Chicago has 184 of Winslow Homer’s artworks. Usually when I look an artist in their catalog, there are 4 results. Maybe 10. Sometimes it might balloon up to 16. But here are one hundred and eighty-four!

One of the top images is a watercolor of a man rowing a boat.

Adirondacks Guide, 1892 (via CC0 Public Domain Designation)

The Art Institute’s description for this painting includes this delightful insight:

“His gaze, forward and slightly elevated, is evocative; one senses that the old man is at once alert to nature and lost in his own contemplations.” (bolding mine).

The man is both alert and lost in contemplations. What a delightful way to describe him! Looking to other Homer artworks, perhaps the Art Institute has just as delightful descriptions. And they do!

The descriptions on many of these Winslow Homer artworks calls out their various dualities. In the following quotes, I bolded a few words to highlight each dichotomy.

The Herring Net, 1885 (via CC0 Public Domain Designation)

Nurtures and deprives

“While one fisherman hauls in the netted and glistening herring, the other unloads the catch. Utilizing the teamwork so necessary for survival, both strive to steady the precarious boat as it rides the incoming swells. Homer’s isolation of these two figures underscores the monumentality of their task: the elemental struggle against a sea that both nurtures and deprives.”

Life-Size Black Bass, 1904 (via CC0 Public Domain Designation)

Life and death

“With trademark ambiguity, Homer presented the bass suspended between life and death. Will it succeed in grabbing its bright target only to seal its fate? The fish’s sudden jump slices through the dark, quiet jungle with a momentary flash of life and color.”

Croquet Scene, 1866 (via CC0 Public Domain Designation)

Game of croquet vs game of flirtation

One of my favorite paintings on display at the Art Institute of Chicago features a game of croquet. However, the Art Institute’s description online missed the duality in this painting.

The man crouching down is either repositioning his croquet ball, or he is being flirty with the woman in the red and white dress. The woman in the blue dress is either shielding her eyes from the sun, or she’s trying to not watch this man’s flirting actions. Thus, this man is either playing the game of croquet or he’s playing the game of flirtation.

The Gulf Stream, probably 1899 (via CC0 Public Domain Designation)

Relaxed or resigned

“the impassive (or dazed) expression of the castaway and his surprisingly relaxed (or resigned) pose imbue the subject with ambiguity.”

Winslow Homer North Woods Club, Adirondacks (The Interrupted Tete-a-Tete), 1892 (via CC0 Public Domain Designation)

Threatened yet beautiful

“In North Woods Club, Adirondacks (The Interrupted Tête-à-tête), hunting is only hinted at in a subliminal way. Homer pictured two white-tailed deer, a doe and a buck, at the edge of a mountain meadow. Homer selected the exact moment when the deer become aware of another presence, the identity of whom is left to the viewer’s imagination.”

“Two tall white pines stand silhouetted against the view, echoing the two deer. White pine had been dangerously over harvested in this period, and worry over its dwindling numbers in the Adirondacks paralleled concern for excessive hunting of deer. Homer drew the pine trees and deer carefully in pencil before adding watercolor, making sure that the distinctive characteristics of both threatened species would be clearly identifiable.”

[The “beautiful” is implied.]

Netting the Fish, 1889 (via CC0 Public Domain Designation)

Neatly-attired vs rustic

“Young, well groomed, and neatly attired, the fisherman in this watercolor stands in contrast to the rustic guides featured in many of the artist’s other Adirondacks works.”

Campfire, Adirondacks, c. 1892 (via CC0 Public Domain Designation)

Expressive also protecting

“The tree’s roots are expressive formal elements in their own right, but these ancient tentacles also seem to protect the resting man.”

Winslow Homer is such an incredible artist for packing in so much nuance into each of these artworks. Kudos to the Art Institute of Chicago for calling each of these out.

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