An illustrator who recorded the USA’s civil war and later turned from drawings to painting to become one of America’s preeminent artists is the subject of a large exhibition at the National Gallery. Winslow Homer’s work is little known outside the USA, so this exhibition is a rare opportunity for Brits to see his work up close, with the entire exhibition based on loans many of which have never been seen in the UK before.
A larger version of the exhibition was previously shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was controversial as it took a new look at this revered artist, expanding on his more famous works to show off a much deeper look at his work “through the lens of conflict”
Although he started as a war artist producing illustrations for a weekly magazine, it was a series of oil paintings he made after the war based on his sketches that established his reputation as a painter. Although his paintings of the war show it in all its brutalism, his post-war paintings were heavy on reconciliation and rebuilding society.
The exhibition opens with Prisoners From The Front, showing two sides of the civil war meeting, based on a real event. Unusually for the time, both sides are shown as equals, at the same height, as part of his effort for the victors not to be seen as lording it over the losers. He didn’t shy from the war though, with a couple of paintings, one of a Unionist sharpshooter and another of a Confederate soldier, often considered a pair.
He also recorded a lot of society at the time, from the cotton pickers to the carnivals and the ladies promenading. It’s a valued record of the life of ordinary people at a time when the news mainly concerned itself with the rich and famous.
A visit to England in 1881 resulted in a massive shift to landscapes and the sea, where he painted some memorable works of the Cullercoat’s fisherwomen with stormy seas as their backgrounds.
Homer was noted for often reworking his paintings if they didn’t sell.
One of his most famous works, the Gulf Stream, of a man in a small fisher boat surrounded by sharks was painted in 1899, but repainted differently in 1906. It has since gone on to become an icon of Black imagery.
After Homer moved back to the USA, he clearly had fallen in love with the sea that he saw in the UK, and moved to a studio overlooking the Atlantic, which was to be his home for the rest of his life.
The exhibition has a number of small explanatory notices, but it would have been nice to have more information about the paintings, especially information about the changes Homer made to some of the works and why.
His early works are almost documentary in style and detail, becoming progressively more abstract until you get to his last work, a blackened coastal cliff that’s almost too dark to make out the details.
With more than fifty paintings, covering over forty years of Homer’s career, this exhibition is part of a programme of exhibitions at the National Gallery that aims to introduce major American artists to the UK and European audiences.
Adult: £12 | Concessions: £10 | Under 18: Free | Members: Free
Tickets can be booked in advance from here.