The Most Important Painting

Winslow Homer, Stowing Sail, watercolor, 1903

What's your first conscious memory?

When I was three my family moved from the house where I spent my first few years. I have a couple dozen images of life in that first house clear in my head. So few memories survive the ravages of time. Maybe the ones that do shine a little brighter as the years march by.

One memory that stands out for me is this painting. A framed reproduction of it hung over our couch in the living room where my sisters and I spent countless hours playing on the floor. I remember staring at it often. It's funny but I thought at the time that I wished the painting was more colorful and that the artist should have provided more details so we would know what was going on in the painting.

Many years later I got to see the original in the Art Institute of Chicago where it lives. While there are other paintings I love more, none have stayed with me quite like this humble little Homer watercolor. Just like you don't choose your parents, early influences stay with you. You have to make the best use of what they offered you, good and bad.

With this particular Homer, I think there was plenty of good. It offers us lots of lessons. One would be just to show how much can be accomplished working primarily in grays. Homer is alleged to have told artists "never paint the sky blue." While he didn't always follow this advice he certainly does here and sounds a beautiful color chord of the warm gray sky against the pale blue waves.

Nobody can paint a figure in the landscape with more authority than Homer. The sailor standing in the skiff has a marvelous rhythm between himself and the mast of the larger boat. Notice that while the man braces himself with legs apart against the skiff's rocking in the waves, the overall axis of his body is at exactly the same diagonal as the lean of the big boat's tall mast.

And a final design idea that I loved as a little kid: the upturned arc of the painted waterline on the transom (the back end) of the large boat merges perfectly with the front of the little skiff. One boat flows effortlessly into the other yet the unique personalities (if one can use that word) of each boat's hull is respected. To this day I can remember sitting on the floor of my childhood home and tracing this movement from one form to another. It intrigued me in a way I then couldn't understand, but I looked at it countless times, trying to make sense of it.

Probably it was my dad who had brought that Homer painting into our house. He had a life long love of the sea and no doubt identified heavily with the man in the skiff. His taste in home decor turned out to be quite a gift to me. Below is my granddaughter Nora who just now is the same age I was when I was first checking out the Homer print in my parent's living room.

Hanging in her living room now is a large oil of mine I gave to my daughter Susan and her new husband Mike as a wedding present. It is The Arrival, oil on panel, 45 x 60". No doubt little Nora has been taking it in with her 3 year old eyes. Probably there are things she likes and no doubt a few suggestions she can make about how it could be better. Wonder what she'll remember about the painting years from now...


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