Concurrent with the development and rise of the Hudson River School, American artists journeyed abroad and enrolled in the leading art schools of Europe. Thomas P. Rossiter (1818–1871) received his training in the most fashionable of all art capitals, Paris. Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), who studied at the Düsseldorf Academy in Germany and at the studio of French painter Thomas Couture (1815-1879), specialized in genre scenes of the emerging upper class of New Yorkers who had begun to collect pictures that reflected their lifestyles. The Industrial Revolution led to an increase in the urban population and, with it, a nostalgic yearning for the simple, outdoor life of a bygone era. Genre paintings were seen as offering city dwellers an escape from the hectic pace of their lives.
Winslow Homer (1836–1910) began as an illustrator of Civil War subjects such as Skirmish in the Wilderness (1864), based on a bloody battle that he witnessed as artist-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. Later, he turned his attention toward more picturesque subjects, like Butterflies (1878). Similarly, Edward Lamson Henry (1841–1919) painted charming evocations of bucolic pursuits such as carriage rides through the country and hearty harvest feasts.
Winslow Homer was raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a middle class Yankee family. After an apprenticeship in J.H. Bufford’s (1810-1870) lithography shop in Boston at the age of eighteen, and subsequent work as a freelance illustrator, he was eventually hired by Harper’s Weekly. His only formal training was a few nighttime painting classes at the National Academy of Design. Harper’s Weekly sent the young Homer to cover Lincoln’s inauguration and latter assigned him to what would become a turning point in his artistic career: artist-correspondent to the Army of the Potomac in the burgeoning Civil War.
Homer served an irreplaceable journalistic role as an illustrator of the war, and critics rank his work with the photos of Matthew Brady (1822-1896) as exceptional wartime reportage. Homer, however, was unique in his lack of sensationalism and high drama. Homer preferred to record the everyday, mundane and sobering realities as he visited the battlefields and encampments of the Union troops, establishing a style of genre-based realism.
When Homer retired to Prout’s Neck, Maine, at age 48 he began a solitary, reclusive life. His painting shifted to seascape images where themes of human mortality, isolation, survival and nature’s power predominated-themes which had originally appeared in many of his early Civil War works. Skirmish in the Wilderness is a significant work, for it is one of the first Homer paintings where such themes emerge.
Skirmish in the Wilderness is based on sketches that Homer most likely made at the actual scene of the Battle of the Wilderness which occurred in an exceptionally dense and dark area known as The Wilderness, west of Fredericksburg, Virginia. General Grant had intended to cross through the thick and tangled woodland on the way to an attack on the Confederate capital of Richmond, but General Lee’s cunning strategy forced an attack before the Union troops had emerged from the forest. The usual battle that ensued is described as one which “no man saw” and one “where the enemy was invisible.”
Homer, in recording this battle, kept the human figures small and faceless, resembling the swift sketches from the original drawing, and allowed nature to dominate the picture, enveloping the soldiers. Here, the nature that threatens to engulf the soldiers, physically and psychologically, is of greater concern than the human battle they are fighting. Homer thus foreshadows his later life seascapes by establishing these early themes of survival, desolation and manvs. nature.
By 1878 Homer had abandoned illustration work and had returned from France where he saw the paintings of Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). He had not yet abandoned New York for the relative isolation of Prout’s Neck, Maine. It has been hypothesized that the woman portrayed in Butterflies was his girlfriend and that she was a huntress of men and not just butterflies. In time his canvases became more heroic in scale and complexity.
This decorative subject of a beautiful woman is typical of the Aesthetic Movement and, as such, is an expression of the idea that art exists for art’s sake. Homer at the time had joined the Tile Club, a group committed to produce aesthetic decoration for the home. In 1881, Homer had a change of heart, perhaps because his marriage suit was unsuccessful, and left New York for a remote English fishing village where his new subjects were considerably more robust.
Have you visited the Academic Paintings Gallery at the NBMAA yet? Did you enjoy the artworks? Did you have a favorite? Why or why not? What do you think about the difference in subject matter in Homer’s two paintings? What other Homer paintings can you think of?