Fish Story

The Amon Carter hooks a big one, despite Winslow Homer's schlocky tendencies

Winslow Homer is one of those rare topics on which the hoi polloi and the critics have always agreed. Nearly a century after his death, he retains the critical and popular acclaim that followed him through life; from Robert Hughes to Meyer Schapiro, critics who couldn't agree on the time tend to agree on Homer's merit. Homer scholarship (Homerwork?) is a cottage industry, and the resulting manifestos range from highly technical discussions of his methods to Freudian psycho-sexual interpretations. Some museum, somewhere, is always doing a Homer show, until it seems that no museum could possibly hatch a new angle.

And so Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museumis casting for visitors using an old lure. Literally. Their current effort, Casting a Spell: Winslow Homer, Artist and Angler, displays 53 of Homer's efforts, mostly watercolors commemorating the artist's Hemingwayesque struggles with assorted trout and bigmouth bass. As the catalog attempts to justify it, "given all that we have learned about Homer, it might seem inconceivable to many that there could remain a significant body of his work that has not received scholarly treatment, and yet that has been the case with his works that depict angling."

The show should be subtitled "Homer's World," for the Amon Carter's exhibit is less an examination of Homer's means and methods (been done) than a paean to notions of brotherhood and sport fishing, a tribute to Teddy Roosevelt' s 19th-century masculine ideal. The show traces Homer's escapades in regions where, as Homer once put it, "women cease from troubling"--his membership in various sporting clubs and his obsessive search for pristine streams in which to cast his fly.

Winslow Homer's 1897 watercolor, "Canoe in the Rapids," on loan from the Harvard University Art Museums (Fogg Art Museum)
Winslow Homer's 1897 watercolor, "Canoe in the Rapids," on loan from the Harvard University Art Museums (Fogg Art Museum)

Like the good, family-oriented museum it is, the Amon Carter ignores the latent homoeroticism in this work, as well as in the tale of Homer's New England bachelor life. In an essay subtitled "Fishing and the Fraternal Bond," the catalog recounts the essential facts: Homer's Boston upbringing as the middle of three brothers; his adventurous, absentee father; and last but not least, Homer's lifelong attachment to his older brother Charles. It was Charles who encouraged young Homer, who was mostly self-taught, to paint, and who supported him through periods of penury.

Homer started by illustrating magazines and books, and the show features a few of these efforts. Homer made his name, though, off of fratricide--specifically, the Civil War, which Harper's Weeklyassigned him to cover. After the war he returned to his family and to New England, but he remained a recluse; his only real connections seem to have been to his brothers, his parents and, of course, his fellow sportsmen.

I must confess a deep ambivalence about Homer, based on his pedantry and his addiction to schlock. The most macho and romantic of American painters, Homer had something less than perfect emotional pitch; it sometimes seems as if for every stunning, forlorn New England seascape he painted two or three sappy courtship scenes or sentimental memories of childhood. "Crossing the Pasture," one of the few oils in the Amon Carter show, is just such a canvas: contrived, allegorical and sappy. The same goes for "Camp Fire," a carefully staged, nostalgic tribute to male bonding.

And yet, when Homer succeeds, the results are stunning. Indeed, Homer's popularity is partly because he single-handedly embodies the American ideal: self-reliant, strong and silent, painting perfect New England storms in the isolation of Prout's Neck, the isolated and rocky outpost on the Maine shore where Homer built his studio.

The Amon Carter eschews this more familiar Homer, focusing instead on Homer's simpler, more journalistic efforts. Most of the work is in watercolor, the medium best suited to quickly recording scenery. Although usually considered a second-rate medium, in recent years scholars have argued that Homer's watercolors are at least as important as his oils--a proposition that, after viewing walls of leaping trout, seems dubious at best.

What the show does establish is that nobody was more accomplished in watercolor than Winslow Homer. Even more than most watercolorists, Homer had an expert's touch and perfect control over watery pools of color. More impressive, he had perfect control over its absence. Homer's "negative spaces"--the points where the pristine white paper shows through--read as though they were perfectly applied afterward, as a final gesture, atop color. (He did sometimes tear or rub the top layer of the paper to reveal white, but that was the exception, not the rule.)

The good news is that Homer's watercolors are refreshingly free of the pedantry that suffuses his paintings. The watercolors display Homer's better traits: his reportorial impulses, his storytelling ability, his sharp-eyed analysis of a scene. Granted, like the oils, they are populated by Homerian "types": too-beefy young outdoorsmen and guides. Homer's masculine ideal was not the gentleman angler depicted in his 1874 oil, "The Angler," but the sort of rugged macho he-man who would today be found gracing some beefcake calendar of firefighters. But this failure pales before Homer's skill as a colorist, draftsman and composer. In Homer's hands, we see the medium's highest and best use: its ability to record a scene with feeling no mere camera lens could capture, its ability to capture the colors that only the human eye can see.

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