Saturday, September 19, 2009

Winslow Homer: Illustrating America

Winslow Homer: Illustrating America
Those in the art establishment who like to rewrite art history, or simply ignore it, in the defense of their position that illustration is somehow “not art”, conveniently ignore the number of well known artists who also happened to be illustrators.

A case in point is Winslow Homer, widely regarded to be one of the most prominent American artists and renowned as a master of watercolor, whose career as an illustrator is largely glossed over.

Homer worked for over two decades as an illustrator and visual journalist, reporting from the front lines of the Civil War and portraying more bucolic domestic scenes for popular periodicals like Harper’s Weekly.

His powerful and sensitive drawings, full of sunlight and shadow, emotion and atmosphere, were captured for print in astonishingly intricate wood engravings made by professional wood engravers (who are unsung artistic marvels to my mind), who reproduced the artist’s drawings with a beautiful range of tones made from delicate linework.

Wood engraving is a process that takes the age-old concept of woodcuts a step further, using harder wood and cutting into the end grain instead of the normal block surface. That and the use of tools initially developed for metal engraving, notably the burin, made for a super-fine line that gave an almost photographic appearance.

Homer’s wood-engraved illustrations are the focus of Winslow Homer: Illustrating America, an exhibition organized by the Brooklyn Museum (and taken largely from their collection) and currently showing at the Jersey City Museum in New Jersey.

The exhibition runs until December 23, 2009, and is accompanied by a complimentary exhibit called Hudson Views: A Celebration of the River that features wood engraved illustrations by other artists from similar periodicals.

There isn’t an online gallery for the exhibition, but you can view many of the illustrations in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection.

As these illustrations were mass produced, many are available from dealers in prints and etchings. I’ve listed a few other resources below.

4 thoughts on “Winslow Homer: Illustrating America

  1. Daniel van Benthuysen

    Your point about the number of artists as illustrators is well taken. What’s more, Homer also falls into another subset: the large number of illustrators who worked specifically for newspapers, but are remembered as ‘fine artists.’ John Sloan, Everett Shinn and Reginald Marsh all worked for New York and Philadelphia papers in the first half of the 20th century

  2. Brendan Campbell

    The ‘illustration issue’ is a very interesting one. Here in Ireland the very fine illustrative work of Jack B. Yeats (brother to the poet W.B. Yeats) is frequently passed over or downplayed in favour of his paintings and the prominent Irish Realist painter Robert Ballagh was in recent years publicly dismissed by a well-known and powerful arts administrator as a ‘mere illustrator’ – to which he responded with considerable vigour (see flickr.com/photos/nerosunero/3638331341/ ).

    The world of illustration often seems to me like a vast unexplored continent, unknown and uncharted by those in the ‘regular’ artworld. Although a great deal of the most interesting and exciting work in the visual arts for at least the last decade seems to have been actually happening there rather than the galleries, little is publicly exhibited.

    One of the many strengths of your excellent blog is that it is helping to change this.

  3. Todd

    30 years ago I read everything I could get my hands on about Homer, I could not get enough of him, and somehow he has slipped slowly out of my consciousness> Thank you for posting this.

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