Winslow Homer’s psychological complexity and propensity to color outside the lines help place him as the quintessential American artist.
Homer makes us all look good. While Jackson Pollock brawled and brooded his way through stardom to self-destruction at a critical moment on a stage not of his making, Homer’s genius didn’t get by the rest of us.
Pollock was a truly great artist, but we lose sight of the art behind his story which, unfortunately, became the myth of the American artist: An unappreciated genius struggling to express his truly novel thoughts through the act of painting.
Homer, however, offers a direct line to American culture as it related to its European ancestry: The landscape, the people and their world.
The Portland Museum of Art’s blockbuster “Weatherbeaten,” which closes Sunday, shows Homer as the champion of the Maine seascape. “The Portland Society of Art and Winslow Homer’s Legacy in Maine,” which continues through Feb. 3, is a far humbler but more insightful look at Homer’s local artistic community — the very roots of the PMA.
One of the most satisfying elements of “Homer’s Legacy” is the presence of John Calvin Stevens (1855-1940), whose artistic vision is probably the most visible in the state of Maine.
Stevens was an amateur painter who was a member of the “Brushians” group at the core of the Portland Society of Art, but he was also a significant architect who designed more than 1,000 buildings in Maine as well as a major proponent of Maine’s Shingle style and then the Colonial Revival style that came to dominate American architecture.
From the Saco Museum to Portland’s Forest Avenue post office and through mansions, houses, libraries, churches and buildings throughout the state, Stevens gave Maine architecture a comfortable sophistication to match its rustic charm.
And, absolutely, Stevens could paint.
Stevens’ 1907 “Winter Sunshine,” for example, is a small canvas very likely painted outdoors on a winter weekend with some of his fellow Brushians. Stevens lets the dazzling brightness of the snowy forest floor define the space of the forest as it opens through a few trees to the silent winter woods. It’s a place of fascinatingly visual texture — the white sun flash of winter is just beginning to moisten the clinging snow and free the tall, ochre grasses from the light white blanket that can’t quite make them lie down flat.
Stevens traded his design of a home to Homer for Homer’s “The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog,” which became the most important work owned by the Portland Society of Art. As well, we are reminded by an elegant rendering that Stevens also designed the L.D.M. Sweat Memorial Galleries, the beautiful exhibition space between the PMA’s McLellan House and the new building designed by Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed and Partners.
Comparing Stevens to Homer as painters raises a point crucial to the period — the distinction between professional and amateur artists. Skill and technique were then far more highly valued by the public than self-expression and originality (think of playing classical piano versus jazz). They were different times with different cultural values.
The amateurs in “Homer’s Legacy” shine ever so brightly. Not just Stevens, but several artists who played key roles in developing the PSA such as Charles Frederick Kimball (1831-1903), whose “The Lock” surpasses most contemporary professional painters. Kimball’s “Poplars” uses a Constable-esque structure and extraordinary sunlight before dark skies. Flowing back and forth between clouds, landscape, structure and glassy water reflections, it’s a gem.
George Morse (1834-1925) was a discovery for me personally. His “Delano Woods” held me transfixed — a perfectly textured tree in the foreground grabbed my eye, and the spatial flow into the beautifully painted snowy woods opens outward wondrously. Morse’s spring “Trees” delivers elegantly even textures that belie a decorative lesson quietly championed by Homer.
While “Homer’s Legacy” is a didactic home run, it’s dense enough that you can’t follow every chapter. It features, for example, many images by members of the Portland Camera Club that was folded into the PSA in 1915 — a bold and prescient move.
This review could be about just the photography, the development of the PMA, the community’s artistic leaders, the history of the PSA, the Brushians or just Homer’s impact on local artists.
Instead, this show opens dozens of worthy doors.
Then, of course, there is Homer — not the bold coastal oil painter, but the great watercolorist, the innovative genre painter, the extraordinary portraitist, the exciting journalist and the charming figurative master. There is a room of Homer’s paintings that’s more than worth a visit by itself.
Look to privately owned works and collections from away — pictures we may never see again, such as watercolors of two girls picking berries, two boys in a rowboat checking out a sloop or sunflowers in a summer yard.
There are delicious little oils of a boy picking apples, a girl carrying a bucket of water and a study for the “Weaning of the Calf.” I love the drawings too, but I was most impressed by a great Eakins-style 1883 oil portrait of Lucy Valentine that I had never seen before. Homer didn’t do many portraits, but he excelled at the genre.
Because it conveys so much information from so many perspectives, “Homer’s Legacy” is a surprisingly hefty little show that can feel like a textbook. But it’s worth it just to get a whiff of the rich heritage of the local artistic culture, the backstory of the PMA, Maine’s most important architect — and, of course, America’s greatest painter.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: