Archive for December, 2010

I was standing in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my artist friend Bernie bemoaning the fact that there were no watercolors by Sargent or Homer on display in any museum in New York City in spite of both the Met and The Brooklyn Museum having huge collections.   He immediately asked what was stopping me from asking to see them.  He clearly wasn’t going to put up with a “poor me” attitude.

Thus challenged I asked at the information desk to whom I should write.  This led to an e-mail correspondence with the curator of American Art who said that they did indeed have a great collection at the Met and that I was eminently qualified to look at them (!).  However, she was very apologetic that, because of the construction associated with building a new American Wing, there was no space for me to do so.  When I asked, she gave me a name at the Brooklyn Museum to whom I immediately sent an e-mail.   This, in turn led to an appointment with Karen Sherry, the assistant curator of American Art in the Brooklyn Museum, to see Homer’s work.

Ms. Sherry could not have been nicer or more professional.  She said that there was going to be a Sargent show in 2013 and therefore all the Sargents they had were being kept in the dark at present because of the light exposure which they will sustain during the show.  However, no such restrictions applied to the Homers.  She e-mailed me an illustrated list of the 24 Homers they have from which I chose three although she did not restrict the number. (I had been given only an hour to view them.)  My strategy was to pick fairly late ones in which Homer’s style had evolved from his early more or less English style.  The three ones I choose were the following:

Road in Bermuda

In The Jungle, Florida

End of Portage

The way it worked was that they were wrapped in translucent paper and laid on a table.  I was not allowed to touch them, but Karen Sherry was there to unwrap and move them for me, and we chatted as I looked.

Before I saw them I was a little uncertain what benefit I would get from seeing the originals over seeing reproductions, but afterwards I had no doubts.

The most prominent observation, which I think is only possible from the originals, was how heavily the paint was applied in a lot of places.   For the most part there was layer after layer of paint in the fairly prominent dark passages.  Most of the passages were not transparent at all.  Homer clearly put down large area of the lightest paint such as yellow or greenish yellow, waited for them to dry, and then applied another darker layer over that, and repeated the process over and over again.  For the most part the “glazes” were never completely over the layer below them.  There were little” windows” left through which to see the paint below.   There was some use of a damp brush to take off some of the top layer for things like tree branches.  However, the glaze itself was almost never transparent .    A lot of areas were heavily worked over, glazes, scrapes, lifting off, etc.

It was difficult to tell if Homer used the equivalent of friskit, a resist, on any of these paintings which at the time was a chalk paste which was taken off by bending the sheet of paper over and edge, called counter rolling.   Chalk resist was invented by the English watercolorist Francis Nicolson (1753-1844).   If it had been the rubber cement-like stuff we use today, I think I could have seen the hard edge it tends to leave.  I could see a lot of pencil marks.  In each of the paintings there was a small red element like in the belt of the guide in the front of the canoe in End of Portage.  I always thought it was vermillion which was on his palette, but it look more like carmine now.  Perhaps it had faded.

The paint in these heavily glazed areas was what would be called “bronzed” in watercolor parlance.  That is, it was heavy enough to be what some call “scabby” and had a dull and flat matte look.  Today this is considered a mistake:  over worked, bronzing, etc.   (A corollary of this is that there were not many wet in wet areas.)  However, it did not leave me with that impression.  First of all, it was Homer playing off against the “inanely pretty” work seen today and in his day (which a reviewer pointed out).   Seeing the watercolors “in person” at the Brooklyn Museum I would have to agree with the statement in Scribner’s  that Homer’s watercolors were  ” direct, simple, crude sometimes –never “pretty”–they [have] the unmistakable look of nature . . . such drawings as these are a judgement upon the easily discerned tendencies of some other artists –toward the sentimental, the gorgeous, and the inanely pretty.” (quoted in Helen A. Cooper “Winslow Homer Watercolors” Yale, 1986).  (Watercolors were called “drawings” in those days and the brush, believe it or not, was called a “pencil” in the old days — “drawing” are done with “pencils”, after all.)

The heavily painted areas with the windows to the previous glazed layer suggested a depth and mystery to the nearby woods and forests that every woodsman would recognize.   That is to say, the environment is not completely revealed, and modern eye-tracking studies would suggest that viewers are going to search by instinct behind every tree and into every bush for possible “dangers.”  It’s  holds the eye in the painting. See James Gurney’s discussion of viewers’ eye movements looking at a painting of his with a dinosaur in a woods here.

It, also, looked to me like a deliberate strategy to make the isolated wet-in-wet or more fluid “splashy” passages standout as special.  That is, rather than make an entire watercolor wet-in-wet bravura brush strokes and splashy with lots of blank white paper like, for example, Charles Reed, Homer has chosen to draw the eye to a few such passages which by contrast to the more bronzy passages make them seem every more delightful.   The heavy passages also make for deep darks and intense dark colors.

Because there is always a well-drawn and more delicately painted center of interest, the paintings are easy to get in a superficial way if you’re just strolling by, but the complexity of the background of the paintings can also draw you into them.

I had never really thought deeply about Walter Benjamin’s work about “mechanical reproduction” of art before this, but seeing the real thing and seeing reproductions on the internet were completely different experiences.   There is no way one can pick up the”direct, simple, crude sometimes” quality that makes them great (and very modern, now that I think if it.)  However, with high definition reproductions (which entail both the image and the monitor) that all may change.  I certain hope so.  It’s hard to see a real Homer or Sargent these days.

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