Friends in Odd Places

We never know who will enter our lives and make an indelible impact. One of my best friends, someone who has always been there for me, is a long-deceased ostensible curmudgeon, arguably one of America’s finest painters. He goes by the name of Winslow Homer (1836-1910). Today is his birthday and I want to pay tribute to him.
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Homer was the subject of my graduate work, specifically his scenes of rescue at sea and their ties to boxing, bodybuilding, and the power of water. The painting Undertow, 1886, at the Clark Art Institute has long had significance to me in times of turmoil. I am proud to return to it time and again to see new things and to write about it. It never ceases to amaze, confuse, and inspire me.

Homer gets a bum rap for being isolated, not that outgoing, and a hermit. He moved to the shores of Prout’s Neck, Maine, seemingly to escape life and company. And yet, he loved his family greatly, particularly his brother Charles, and Prout’s was the family compound.

At the Amon Carter, we have this great painting, Crossing the Pasture, 1871-72,
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that seems to celebrate the bond between two brothers. Homer painted it after the Civil War, which pitted brothers against each other. I can’t help but see it as a reflection of Winslow’s relationship with Charles as well as a turn to simpler times after the difficulties of all Homer must have seen as a war correspondent for Harper’s.

In his own words, Homer told his friend the printer Louis Prang, “I deny that I am a recluse as is generally understood by that term. Neither am I an unsociable hog.” He engaged in puns, beginning that letter with the joke “But what’s your hurry…said the King of Russia.” Get it? Though Homer put a sign outside his studio that warned of snakes and mice to deter visitors from dropping by, I can’t help but think I would have enjoyed his company. After all, who doesn’t like someone who’s hard to get, with a dry wit?

I don’t believe I am Homer’s only friend. In an attempt to see how his relationships could have resulted in cross pollination of artistic ideas, I even made him a Fakebook page that allows us to think about his art differently both as influenced by and as influential to his friends.
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Though this friendship seems a bit one sided—Homer will never bring me soup when I’m sick or watch my cat—art historians get a tremendous sense of satisfaction from research and study. And part of what we strive to do is to bring these artists to life for our visitors.

So, to my friend Homer…a very happy birthday.

Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator