Winslow Homer: Illustrating Modern American Women
Winslow Homer (1836–1910), known for his paintings in oil and watercolor, is also regarded as one of the finest magazine illustrators of the nineteenth century. From 1857 to 1878 his wood-engraved images appeared in many of the nation’s leading magazines. Homer’s primary identity as a specialist in genre, or scenes of everyday life, most likely grew out of his early and long experience as an illustrator. His commissions for popular illustrated weeklies demanded descriptive images that conveyed the immediacy of changing customs, fashions, and values in a manner that could be broadly understood by the predominantly white, middle-class readers of these publications.
Social and economic shifts brought about by the Civil War provided a rich reservoir of subject matter for Homer and his contemporaries. Homer incorporated references to a range of such changes, as experienced by the targeted audience of the magazines and books he was hired to illustrate. Thus, for example, his scenes of women skating or playing croquet not only pointed to a new craze for health-promoting exercise, but also referred to new venues for social interaction between the sexes and the fashions recommended for such activities. Similarly, the growing contrasts between city and country life were played out in the “types” that Homer portrayed: the hardworking farm girl, the city woman with her highly regulated social life, or the art student and others of the emerging class of women who aspired to professional status in previously male-dominated pursuits.
Homer and Literary Illustration
The works in this case are examples of the illustrations that Homer produced to accompany literary texts. The demand for illustrators was at its peak in the United States during the time of Homer’s activity in the field. This boom was mainly a result of the huge growth in book publishing, particularly the establishment of a number of literary monthlies such as Scribner’s and The Galaxy. Publishing depended largely on the wood-engraving process in the days before photomechanical reproduction techniques came into widespread use.
Homer was engaged to illustrate a variety of poems, short stories, and novels of both “high” and “low” literary quality, yet the critical estimation of the writing seems to have had little impact on the quality of the drawings that he created. Strong relationships are often found between some of Homer’s illustrations and his more famous and now highly revered oils such as The Noon Recess, 1873, and The Morning Bell, 1871. Such links are reminders that, although illustration provided a comfortable income for Homer, his goals were fixed on success in the “higher” arts. When possible, he seems to have used his illustration assignments to explore and develop a style related to his independent pursuits as a painter.
Winslow Homer: Illustrating America will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from July 2 through October 10, 1999. The exhibition comprises 115 wood engravings from 1857 to 1878 selected from a collection of more than 225 works given to the Museum by Harvey Isbitts. Among the featured works will be one of Homer’s earliest known prints, Minnie Clyde: Kitty Clyde’s Sister, used for a song sheet cover, as well as such popular genre scenes as Snap the Whip.
The exhibition will include Homer’s well-known images depicting the grimness, savagery, and poignancy of the Civil War, including The War—Making Havelocks for the Volunteers and The Army of the Potomac—A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty. By war’s end Homer was the leading artist of Harper’s Weekly, favored with more full-page spreads, cover designs, and choice positions than any other artist. His 1860s illustrations of the seashore and various leisure activities give glimpses of the kind of work he would create in the future.
The exhibition will explore the meanings of these images, placing them in a context that will reveal to the late twentieth-century viewer the intricacies of nineteenth-century American social conventions. The prints provide a view of life more than a hundred years ago as seen by one of America’s most important artists.
On his twenty-first birthday in 1857 Homer rented a studio in Boston and began a long period of productivity. He sent drawings to Harper & Brothers and in less than a year the newly founded Harper’s Weekly published his Spring in the City. Thereafter Homer’s drawings appeared frequently in Harper’s Weekly. Among the more memorable ones was Husking the Corn in New England, the first in a long series of rustic genre pictures illustrating various aspects of farm life.
In 1859, soon after his arrival in New York, Homer became sought after as one of America’s finest illustrators, working in wood engraving at a time when that medium was the most expedient mode of reproducing images in the popular press. Invited by Harper & Brothers to become a staff artist, he declined, preferring the freedom to work on his own.