thrill of the kill? Winslow Homers Huntsman and
Homer: Masterworks from the Adirondacks
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.
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
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.