Sometimes you just have to see the real thing.
Recently, I visited the conservation labs at the Legion of Honor, also known as the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. The first thing to greet me, once I got through the doors, was a watercolor of a placid lake surrounded by dark, moody hills, and above which was a gray and red sky. Red. Not pink, but red—a kind of boldness I wouldn’t normally associate with this medium. And even from forty feet away, even without being certain that I’d ever seen this particular painting before, I blurted out, “that’s a Winslow Homer.”
Below is the painting in question; it’s called Sunrise, Fishing in the Adirondacks, and dates to 1892:
Approximately 13.5 x 20.5625 inches)
Watercolor on paper, 1892.
I know Homer’s work and admire it, but I haven’t felt tremendously influenced by it. He has been so often imitated that his style and subject matter has become a kind of schtick, a genre that borders on cliché. Rugged New England scenery—seacoasts or mountains—and a loose and watery painting style. Lots of burnt umber, lots of indigo, lots of viridian. And if you, like I, have only seen Homer’s work in reproduction, you may be forgiven for feeling the same sort of dispassion about his work.
Then you see one in person. Even framed (as this painting was) in a historic but worse-for-wear gilt millwork, even (as this painting was) behind glass, the work draws you in. The colors, first of all, pop in a way that no reproduction ever can. The photograph I have posted above was made by the FAMSF itself, but it looks terrible, the colors muddy, the tones totally missing. (I’ve tried to correct it in Photoshop but even that work has only gotten the image so far.)
Getting closer to the image, my preconceptions about Homer’s style disappeared. His dark areas are not at all as luminescent as his later imitators, and in fact the hills and river are so thickly laid they might well be impasto. (The thrill of thinking: we share a technique!) The line for the fisherman was made by using a knife to scratch into the surface. The sky? He used a sponge to lift away color and, as it dried further, scrub and smear it. The whole painting exudes a kind of earthiness that few watercolors manage.
Later in the day, I was able to see work by a painter who I greatly admire, Childe Hassam. One of the “American impressionists,” Hassam had painted in Oregon off and on, mostly in the seldom visited area of Harney County in the southeast portion of the state. The Portland Art Museum has several of his paintings. I saw them on the enforced culture trips of grade-school visits, and their presence stuck. I can’t recall any specific details, only the general sense of beauty and the light. It has been years, however, since I stood before one—possibly decades—and so I wasn’t prepared when a very real Hassam watercolor sat (framed, of course) in my hands.
From across the room, the painting titled Rainy Night (1895) appeared to be a fairly simple if striking impressionist-style painting of New York around the turn of the century. Buggies, pedestrians, street lamps, soaring gothic buildings. That sort of thing. For a semblance, see this photograph:
8.25 x 11.25 inches,
Watercolor on paper, c. 1895.Photo: FAMSF
Holding it up close, however, I became enamored. Not only had Hassam painted a wet night, he had painted it wet. Throughout the image are telltale signs of him working in color with a very small brush, so that (like raindrops themselves) he made a whole out of fragments, working his pigments into a wash underneath that was still damp. Best yet was his dropping of clear or nearly clear water into the damp surface, making a lighter area that is ringed by a dark halo of pigment. In papermaking, this is known as “printer’s tears,” and shows where water dropped onto still damp paper; in watercolor it is usually a sign of an errant water drop from a too-vigorous (or too-sloppy) brush. Here, Hassam used the effect of an error as an intentional technique.
The result is that the pavement especially feels slick and wet. Does this visual reflect the seen reality of the place? No. Does it evoke the wetness of that night sidewalk better than a literal depiction would have? Yes.
Here, then, is a tension I have been struggling with for about the last year: how to move beyond the literal while holding onto—no, while getting closer—to the truth of a moment and place. To be specific and faithful without being pedantic.