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The thrill of the kill? Winslow Homer’s Huntsman and Dogs.

Realist Romance
By David Brickman

Winslow Homer: Masterworks from the Adirondacks
Fenimore Art Museum, through Sept. 6

If we’ve ever had a summer with more must-see exhibitions in the Capital Region than this one, I sure can’t remember it. In all directions of the compass, there are superb collections of 19th-century French and American paintings, not to mention better and better established contemporary galleries, annual regional shows, even an overnight sensation by the Albany Underground Artists a week ago.

With all that, it may seem like a lot to cruise out to the Fenimore Art Museum for a one-room selection of 15 paintings by Winslow Homer, but let me tell you straight: You should go while there’s still time.

Winslow Homer: Masterworks from the Adirondacks is a gem of a show in a treasure of a museum on the bank of Glimmerglass Lake (real name Otsego), with very carefully selected pieces by one of America’s most important painters, and with a strong local connection in its theme. Put simply, Homer loved the ’dacks; he drew and painted (and fished) there regularly over a 40-year period—longer than any place in his impressive pantheon of geographically significant subjects (including the Caribbean and the coast of Maine).

Why did Homer love the Adirondacks so much? Just like his contemporaries in the French Barbizon school, Homer was a realist with a romantic streak—he wanted to believe in a wilderness paradise, but knew that progress was taking all the wilderness away. The Adirondacks were his Fontainebleau, soothing his need for serenity (and trout) while firing up an environmentalist’s passion for preservation, both of the land and of the old ways of the rugged men who lived off the land.

The oil paintings, watercolors and graphics that make up this smartly presented exhibition convey Homer’s passion and his message. They also delineate the development of a man from conventional illustrator to full-blown artist, a difference as significant in its value as it is elusive in its subtleties.

Like his younger contemporary Frederic Remington, Homer began as a successful magazine illustrator who traded in images of rustic charm; Remington had his cowboys, and Homer had his mountain men and vacationing Victorians. But both artists, as they matured, sensed that this wasn’t enough, and began to pursue a higher calling through painting. Remington, sadly, was cut down by sudden illness in middle-age before he had fully made the transition, and hence is remembered as a lesser artist. But Homer lived longer, and in those extra 25 years forged the career that we now celebrate.

The Fenimore exhibition, in addition to having comfortable period-style furniture from Stickley to relax upon and slick wall graphics in a folksy font, is built around several major oil paintings, a number of important watercolors and a handful of black-and-white illustrations. The latter group shows Homer’s skillful, lucrative and uninspiring early style—all the better for generating an appreciation for the masterpieces that eventually would follow.

There are several focal points throughout the installation and interesting juxtapositions to ponder. For example, two watercolors placed around a corner from each other provide a nice opportunity to observe the change in Homer’s level of mastery over a 15-year period.

The earlier piece, dated 1874 and painted tightly in dark colors, depicts a Victorian couple watching the moon over a shadowy lake. They sit stiffly together on the hard, horizontal line of the beach; at the lower right, a white-crested wave splashes up in a vain attempt to vivify the scene. Flash forward to the 1889 Casting, A Rise and you see a similarly horizontal view of a lake, also painted in dark colors.

But there the similarity ends. Now, like the sinuous line cast by a fishing boatman at the center of the composition, Homer is all confident ease with his medium, working loosely to render not just how the lake, woods and reflections look, but how they truly feel as well. Bright dashes in the water here bring the eye in and across the painting, leading to the object of the fisherman’s interest, where we can guess a tempted trout must lie in wait for the looping fly he has just sent aloft. This is realism taken to the next level, that of lyricism.

Nearby, a major oil painting from 1877 (but dated 1880) accomplishes, as described on the wall label “a virtuoso display of technique” by rendering a camping scene so sharply as to even show sparks flying up from the fire in sensuous orange curlicues. And it is impressive. But other, later oil paintings again reveal how far Homer had yet to come.

The show’s best painting, Huntsman and Dogs, dates from 1891 and depicts a too-young hunter carrying the rack and hide of the deer he’s just killed as he pauses in a fall landscape under a gloomy sky. His hounds frolic and jump on either side of him, still perhaps inspired by the bloody scene left somewhere behind, when he evidently abandoned the slain animal’s meat. Because tourism and fashion had made the trophies of the hunt more profitable than the food that had previously justified it, this youth is already corrupted, his honor and tradition as cut off as the stump of the great tree that he leans his boot upon. Homer reveals this truth not in the warm glow of revelation but with the cold light of reason—and the boy’s impassive gaze mirrors its emptiness.

This and other works from ’91 and ’92 explore the struggle and serenity of Homer’s Adirondack experiences and hint at the environmental movement that emerged from that time and place. Certainly, such work had a role in preserving the values of the past and inspiring efforts to prevent their being lost forever. This is an important part of Homer’s legacy.

It should be noted that Masterworks from the Adirondacks is sponsored by Spanierman Gallery, LLC, a New York City dealer in 19th- and early 20th-century art. The works are borrowed from collections near and far, including the Adirondack Museum, the Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery, the Hyde Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Clark Art Institute. Clearly, it’s easier to catch this show than it would be to plan a tour of the whole Northeast, even if one does have easy access to many of these works in nearby museums—and it is in fact a unique opportunity to see them all together.

A slim catalog accompanies the exhibition, featuring an essay by guest curator David Tatham and good reproductions of most of the artworks. It’s a steal at $10.

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