Winslow Homer's odyssey on display

Chris Bergeron

In Winslow Homer's dramatic etching "Eight Bells" a weathered mariner in an oilskin slicker charts a safe course across darkening seas.

Like the seaman at his sextant, Homer seems the right guiding spirit to launch celebrations at the Museum of Fine Arts for reaching the first milestone of a major building project propelling Boston's premier arts institution into the 21st century.

The MFA is now showing "Winslow Homer: American Scenes," an engaging exhibit featuring its entire collection of the artist's works. In conjunction with the recent opening of a grand entrance to the Fenway, it showcases 70 works comprising 11 paintings, including several masterpieces, five watercolors and more than 40 prints.

Looking to the past and future, the exhibit provides a comprehensive look at a multifaceted artist who captured a vanishing slice of American life in singular paintings of somber beauty.

Homer's wind-blown sailors and women in white dresses gazing seaward provide a wondrous portal to recall a bygone time and imagine what's to come.

Covering the breadth of his career, the show includes a sketch of a rocket he made at 13, early commercial illustrations and engravings from the Civil War that presaged his later style.

The MFA's largest show on Homer in 12 years includes notable prints and paintings of New England scenes, gorgeous watercolors from Cuba and the Bahamas, and his haunting 1889 etching "The Life Line (Saved)." Located in the Lee Gallery, it runs through Dec. 7.

Curator Elliot Bostwick Davis said the exhibit "offers visitors a rare and intimate glimpse of (Homer's) working method in all media throughout his career."

The chairwoman of the Art of the Americas department, she organized the exhibit with help from Elizabeth Mitchell, assistant curator of the Prints and Drawings department.

While not a large show, this timely exhibit provides a satisfying overview of Homer's career. It should reinvigorate interest in an artist whose success synthesizing European trends with the prevailing American mood exceeds his popular reputation for chronicling 19th century New England life in brooding maritime images.

As Americans head to the beaches and the polls Homer is, after all, the perfect artist to remind us of the riptides coursing beneath sunny seas.

After viewing iconic paintings like "Boys in a Pasture" or "The Fog Warning" which convey the promise and energy of a developing nation, visitors can walk a short distance to the new State Street Corporation Fenway Entrance which marks the completion of the first stage of the most ambitious building project in the museum's history.

By focusing on Homer, whose signature style reflects the emergence of a distinctly American artist, the exhibit heralds the coming construction of the 50,000-square-foot, four-story American Wing.

A Boston native, Homer outgrew his origins as a magazine illustrator to reinvent himself as a multifaceted artist.

Throughout the show, a picture of him emerges as a innovative artist, sensitive to his surroundings, absorbing lessons from domestic and European contemporaries and always driving himself in a new direction.

By the show's end, visitors will have a clearer idea how the craftsman who once illustrated sentimental songbooks like "Katy Darling" grew into the bold innovator who transformed English fishwives in "Mending the Nets" into the three Sisters of Fate spinning and cutting the threads of human destiny.

Davis said Homer's childhood interest in drawing was supported by his parents, especially his mother who was a skilled watercolorist. After apprenticing as a lithographer, he illustrated sheet music covers before striking out as a freelancer whose early work demonstrated technical skill and a willingness to challenge tradition.

In images like "Snap the Whip!" of boys at play or "The Dinner Horn" of a farm girl calling her family to supper, Davis said Homer was "definitely responding to the then-popular nostalgia for rural life" while utilizing new techniques he'd acquired in Paris. "Homer was very much involved with composition and design," she said. "But he often pushed the boundaries of himself as a draftsman."

The exhibit succeeds by documenting the progress of a restless craftsman and visual storyteller who was far more than just a painter of dramatic maritime scenes.

In a series of Civil War collectors cards, Homer documented camp life with sly humor and a sharp eye for details that establish character. In the wood engraving "Homeward Bound" he utilizes techniques probably learned from Japanese prints to present a familiar scene through an altered perspective.

In less familiar watercolors such as "Woman Standing by a Gate, Bahamas" and "Street Corner, Santiago, Cuba," Homer reveals a lush, almost tropical palette that demonstrates another side of his fascination with color and light.

The real strength of "Winslow Homer: American Scenes" is its success showing a determined craftsman building upon and then transcending his commercial origins to establish himself as an artistic visionary.


The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is open seven days a week. Hours: Saturday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.; (Thursday and Friday after 5 p.m. only the West Wing is open).

Adults, $17; seniors and students, 18 and older, $15. Youths 7 to 17, $6.50, however, they are admitted free weekdays after 3 p.m., weekends and public holidays. Youths 6 and under free.

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