homer: arcadia americana

It’s art that arrives at its destination from the outside and then pays attention to observation. Homer is part of the strong figurative tradition in American art, and although appropriated as a popular stereotype it reaches back to older, quite profound questions that were asked in the wake of the Civil War, the harnessing of the killing machine, and the feeling that industrial age technology was supplanting the emotive effect. Walt Whitman was also tuned into this issue, given America’s unique status, of how to create a margin of freedom, a space, where you can be human and have independent feelings. Even back as society lurched hesitatingly into the late nineteenth-century and the dying world of Mark Twain, the questions, still pertinent today, centered on what is the fate of feeling, what is the fate of the individual?

…From his early training as a draftsman and printmaker in Boston and subsequent experience as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, Homer entered his artistic maturity with a consummate skill for compositional organization and telling detail. Here he fuses in perfect equilibrium the three principal elements of his painting-mountains cape, school building, and figures-both as subject and as design. This tripartite balancing has a further expression in the whip line itself: the three anchoring boys at the right, the four running figures in the middle, and the two flying off at the left….

---Here Homer reminisces about rural simplicity and reflects on the challenges of the complex post–Civil War world. Released from the confines of a one-room schoolhouse, exuberant boys engage in a spirited game. As the population shifted to cities and the little red schoolhouse faded from memory, this image would have evoked nostalgia for the nation's agrarian past. The boys' bare feet signal childhood's freedom but their suspenders are associated with manhood's responsibilities. Their game, which requires teamwork, strength, and calculation, may allude to the reunited nation. Observed from right to left, Homer's boys hang on to one another, strain to stay connected, run in perfect harmony, and fall away, enacting all the possible scenarios for men after the Civil War.--- Read More:http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/50.41

…As Jules Prown has shown us, Homer’s visual theme is that of interdependence and interconnections, held and broken, among human beings. Painted just as the artist was moving from his own youth into middle age, this, and a number of related images from the mid-1870s, suggests he increasingly had in mind his own sense of relatedness and separateness within family and society. As obviously lighthearted, dynamic, and spontaneous as Snap the Whip appears in both form and content, a number of subtle internal tensions heighten its meaning; the play of stillness and motion, running and falling, stones and flowers, interior and exterior, wilderness and construction, physical and mental. This latter contrast is especially pertinent, for the game is taking Place during a midday break indicated by the shadows of a high sun-from the disciplines of learning inside the schoolhouse behind. Read More:http://www.butlerart.com/pc_book/pages/winslow_homer_1836.htma

---The Cooper-Hewitt owns a number of Homer drawings that evade the tourist-appeal category and honestly confront the rough surf and gnarled tree roots of New England beaches. He is a terrific painter of wind and water. Another side of Homer is explored in a catalogue essay entitled “The Pastoral Ideal: Winslow Homer’s Bucolic America.” Images such as Two Girls with Sunbonnets in a Field (oil, c. 1877–78) rethink the pastoral genre in American terms, more democratic but no more realistic than the European arcadia and daubed in sunny, modern patches of light.--- Read More:http://nccsc.net/2006/8/15/frederic-church-winslow-homer-and-thomas-moran

Thematically, Snap the Whip is working at several levels. The most obvious is the nostalgia, though that is more complex than it appears; also the issue of aloneness and isolation as opposed to community and cooperation- still pertinent today- and the interplay between play, study and freedom. However, at another level, there is the pastoral theme of Arcadia, perhaps America as a New Jerusalem with the children as part of a larger conception dealing with the Flight From Egypt, or as young shepherds.

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