My short answer: it is tool to make us feel better.
In everyone's life there are a few moments in any given week when experience becomes exceptional. The usual cloud of preoccupations, anxieties, and general confusion are swept away by a new perception. A snatch of music, an unexpected scent, or the glow of sunlight on a courtyard wall reaches deep within us and sounds a new chord. For a brief moment a sensation of well being, excitement and good old fashioned delight takes a hold of us. These moments are the exceptional times in our lives, but they are among the most real things that happen to us. Sometimes we know for a least a moment that our life is deep, real, and utterly worthwhile.
Artists have a dicey job. We try to grab a hold of those extraordinary moments and turn them into something you can hold onto. We create paintings, sculptures, or music that remind people of those times when they have seen and felt most deeply.
One of the reasons I'm such a fanatic about some of the art from the past is that is has been a remarkable boon to me- it teaches me how to see. It isn't that art from the past is automatically better than contemporary art. Some of the old artist stumbled pretty badly. But if people are still looking a paintings done by someone over a hundred years ago, there's a better than average chance there is something genuine going on there.
One of my favorites is the 19th century American painter Winslow Homer. Above is his oil A Light on the Water in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Homer had a knack for seeing the essentials. I imagine he had the habit of walking through life with half-squinted eyes, always studying the simplified silhouettes and color of what he saw. He learned how to say a great deal with an absolute minimum of means.
Notice how Homer adjusts the tones of dark and light in his figure so that she's always darker than the light on the water. He's gone to great pains to express her lively personality through her elegantly powerful silhouette, and because he knows what he's doing, he adjusts the tones to highlight this special expressiveness of her shape. He makes it hard to miss what he liked best about her.
Here's a more modest Homer, a watercolor titled Woman Sewing, also at the Corcoran. Homer is extremely selective about which details to emphasize. Look at the restraint on the folds on the sitter's torso. They are barely indicated so that instead the woman's gesture with her hands and the shape of what she's sewing will seem important. Compared to her top, the rhythms of the silky trim at the bottom of her skirt is accented. The shape of the bottom hems is echoed in the cloudy grey swirls in the background at the lower right. The woman looks up from her contemplative task, but the amazingly animated abstract background suggests she's emotionally far away in a very charged personal reverie.
This is another Homer watercolor, Picking Apples, a picture that wrote the book about celebrating brilliant sunlight, Look for a moment at the heavy wall of dark green Homer creates to summarize the orchard in back of the little girls. A bird would break its neck if it tried to land on one of those trees. The little bits of sky that show have likewise been darkened and greyed down to make Homer's foreground spots of sunlight seem all the brighter. Notice how much fun Homer has positioning the two girls so close together, squeezing the empty space between them into a series of sharp, unexpected shapes. And those bonnets or hoods the kids are wearing are fabulous. I have a birthday coming up, if any of you are wondering what to get me...
And here's a final Homer watercolor, Key West, Hauling Anchor. It's an elegant dance between darks, greys and lights. Look at how Homer holds the tones in the water and sky down to a middle grey level so the white sails and boat's hull shout out their whiteness. The ship's crew
is pushed together into a large dark accent to push the beautiful abstract shapes of the sails forward into the viewer's eyes.
Homer was a man who spent a lifetime using his eyes and loving the best of what he saw. Inventive and patient, he crafted paintings that select out for us the very best of what he discovered. Look closely at what he shows us. He's an unrivaled teacher of how to see more clearly and feel more deeply. Winslow Homer- a thoughtful, generous man. I know he's been an invaluable guide to me in making sense of my experiences and my learning to enjoy the world more fully. Thanks Winslow.