Winslow Homer: An American Genius at the Parthenon
June 3-Sept. 24
Hours: 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Tues.; 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat.; noon-4:30 p.m. Sun.
$6 adults, $3.50 children/seniors, free children under 4
Call 862-8431 for information
Susan Shockley is excited, and she has a right to be. She is the curatoralong with assistant curator Lila Hallof what may be the most important exhibition the Parthenon has ever hosted. On Saturday, June 3, the museum opens its doors for ”Winslow Homer: An American Genius at the Parthenon.“ This is the first in a projected series of exhibitions on the history of American art inspired by the Parthenon’s own Cowan Collection of American Art. As museum curators and commercial gallery owners all over town are quick to admit, the arrival of the Frist Center has raised the bar for everyone in the visual arts in Nashville. The Homer exhibition is the Parthenon’s first bid to be taken seriously in the city’s new artistic climate.
The show consists of more than 60 works, including wood engravings, oils, and watercolors. While it doesn’t rival the major retrospectives New York or Boston might be able to mount, the exhibition is an impressive feat, especially for Nashville. It has also required a new air-conditioning system, one that computer-monitors temperature and humidity to protect artwork. New art-friendly lighting has been installed as well. In addition, this is the first Parthenon exhibition to supply an audio tour, which includes 20 key stops and provides context for Homer’s most important works.
Although the handsome color catalog groups Homer’s work largely by medium, the exhibition itself is more chronological. This is the best way to observe an evolving style and to grasp some sense of an artist’s life as a narrative. The chronological approach also nicely reveals a particular artistic progression in Homer’s workone that the catalog sums up as ”The Move Toward Abstraction.“ The show opens with Homer’s early work, detailed illustrations of social activities that are fairly typical of their era; it ends with a watercolor of redwing blackbirds so simple it is almost abstract. When this approach to Homer’s career began to emerge through a careful perusal of his work, Susan Shockley and Lila Hall were pleased to find scholars confirming their suspicions. Even though Homer’s career demonstrates an increasing orientation toward abstract design, this theme had never before been used to organize an exhibition of his work.
As you pass the curved wall that begins your carefully channeled tour through the Parthenon’s newly rearranged gallery space, you face a large photograph of Homer that reappears at intervals to remind you of the man behind the work. Surprisingly, this painter of bucolic maidens and maritime heroics was quite the dandy. He sits stiffly posed in this 1867 French photo, his hair parted in the middle, the ends of his fashion-victim walrus mustache waxed, his thumb in his watch pocket. His eyes are dark and intense. We like to imagine we can see greatness in retrospect, but this could be the portrait of any 19th-century urban swell, which is what Homer was at the time of his early success. Apparently his appearance puzzled his contemporaries too. In 1873, a critic recorded his impression of Homer: ”He is a nervous, thin-looking man, with restless black eyes, and a countenance full of the expression of apprehension. How ever he can paint such poetical pictures is past our finding out....“
Homer’s earliest success came as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, America’s version of such European standards as the Illustrated London News. An anonymous collector lent a number of these to the Parthenon for this show. They demonstrate both Homer’s youthful exuberance as a chronicler of society and his maturing vision during a stint recording the Civil War. Susan Shockley also had the good idea to reproduce a few entire issues of Harper’s Weekly and laminate them for browsing, to place Homer’s work in the context of its time. The magazines are richly illustrated, replete with sensational news stories, bad jokes, and advertisements that even the most history-minded will find hilarious. To remind you of how long ago this strikingly modern artist began his career, you’ll find some of Homer’s early illustrations running alongside the first serialization of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.
Scholars like to point out that Homer revisited his themes and compositions as he aged, as if his powers of invention flagged even as his perfectionism grew. The Parthenon exhibition includes some examples of this trend, which demonstrate the artist’s thinking about the virtues of different media. While ”Snap the Whip,“ the famous 1872 oil of children playing outside a school, is not in this show, the Harper’s Weekly wood engraving of it from the next year is. You will also find ”Eight Bells“ and other works, including ”The Dinner Horn.“ These are not merely commercial reproductions of extant works; they are differing approaches to the same composition, with the engraving frequently predating the painting.
The exhibition includes several oils, including the one that inspired the whole show, ”Rab and the Girls,“ from the Parthenon’s own Cowan Collection. The best may be Homer’s masterfully simple 1879 painting ”Reading by the Brook.“ A girl sits in dappled shade under a tree, surrounded by a romantically misty feeling of nature at its most benign. As so often happens in Homer, sunlight sparkles on white clothing, and the green of the surrounding trees and grass is enlivened by a touch of fiery red, in this case the ribbon that binds the girl’s hair. She is centered in the canvas, the background reduced to three stripes of colortree and far bank, the vague brook, and shady grass around the figure.
This is pure Impressionism. In fact, it was painted only five years after Monet’s ”Impression: Sunrise“ inspired a hostile French critic to give the movement its name. Homer’s simple design, loosely drawn and relying on color, is a long way from his elaborate society illustrations of the previous decade.
In the middle of his life, Homer moved to rural Maine to devote himself to his art. In time, to refresh himself with a change of scenery, he frequently traded the forests and rocky coasts of the north for the sunny beaches of the Caribbean and other warm southern climes. The dark, symbolic northern oils began to be replaced by joyously colorful watercolors that portrayed nothing else so much as a spontaneous delight in the play of light and color. Scholars generally proclaim Winslow Homer the greatest watercolorist in the history of American art. This show features several beautiful examples, including views of Florida, Bermuda, Cuba, and the Bahamas.
One of Winslow Homer’s few surviving comments about art is that he generally preferred ”a picture composed and painted out of doors.“ This remark predates Degas’ claim that Monet’s paintings always made him want to turn up his collar. In Homer’s time, plein-air painting had not yet come of age. However, as a critic observed in 1879, Homer’s watercolors bear ”unmistakable marks of having been made outdoors in the summer and the sunlight.“ Only in watercolor, and only on the spot, could Homer have achieved the lovely simplicity of ”Redwing Blackbirds,“ possibly the best painting in the Parthenon show. This single work confirms the theme of the exhibition, the status of the painter, and the wisdom of working hard to bring his art to Nashville.
A few words . . .
Vanderbilt’s Fine Arts Department is cosponsoring with the Parthenon a series of lectures on Winslow Homer, to be held in Room 126 of Wilson Hall on the Vanderbilt campus. The schedule includes: Marie Louden-Hanes, ”The Move Toward Abstraction,“ June 4; Vivian Green Fryd, ”From the Civil War to the War With Nature: Winslow Homer,“ July 9; Sarah Burns, ” ‘Rab and the Girls’: A Riddle in Paint,“ Aug. 20. Call 862-8431 for details.
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…
How ironic that "Vandy radio" gets resurrected as a fictional station?! I was just glad…
Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.