Sunday, May 23, 2010

None of Us Is Really Alone


Above is an old favorite painting of mine, Summer Night by the American painter Winslow Homer. I used to think this was a fantastical sort of imagined scene. But then I went to visit his old studio in Prout's Neck, Maine. Homer's studio was right down near the water and was surrounded by a bunch of other summer homes at the time he lived there. Some of the others were owned by other family members. Illuminated by the light from one of the houses, the two dancing figures standing before the cool moonlit sea probably would have looked just like this. And I'd wager this was something Homer saw more than once in real life on summer nights during his years there.

That said, look the wonderful way Homer creates a warm light on the dancers and plays it off against the cool blue-green greys of the background. But painter that he was, he knew he had to tie the dancers somehow to the distant waves as well. Notice how their arms extend to the left at just the same diagonal angle he creates in the tops of the big wave at the right. Against all this he places a dark foreground sloping the other way. It works beautifully.

He got his start as an illustrator doing Civil War scenes for the press and went on to be a bridge into the art of the early 20th century. A mid 20th century painter, Fairfield Porter was someone who looked a lot at Homer. While I don't think Porter was quite as talented as Homer, he was a far better painter for having studied Homer's work. And he did some pretty sharp pieces on occasion. Below is a lovely little snow scene by Porter, unusual for him. It struck me that the space was similar to the Homer oil above, with a dramatic change in the light and color once one climbed the snow covered ridge. As you hike into the background you leave the hight contrast darks and lights and the blue shadows. Things warm up into a more grey green middle toned world.
Finally here's a slightly strange Porter, a view from eastern Long Island. I think he was enjoying the wide, stretched-out spaces one finds out there. There's a soupy haze blowing in off the ocean and it modifies all the distance towards subtle colors and light mid tones. Against this, Porter has a ball with the bright red and oddly shaped cottage and the ridiculously long early 1960's American car. The foreground has a great slightly purple grey light shadow, punctuated by just three bursts of sunlight. Look at how careful Porter is to make each of these spots of sunlight have a unique shape and personality. When he wanted to, Porter know how to really look.



Porter was friends with Eugene Leake, the guy that hired me to come to teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the school's former President. Leake was a very fine painter himself and owed much to Porter's example in finding his own style of landscape painting. Porter had two solo exhibitions at MICA, one just before I moved to Baltimore to start teaching there. I'm sorry I missed it. I think I would have learned something from seeing it. Just as I think Porter learned from looking at artists like Winslow Homer.

In a way we're all in the same boat, both as artists and as humans. If you look around there are countless examples of where one person has learned something of real importance from someone who has gone before them. That's why I take it very seriously when I pick up the paintbrush and start to work. There are more hands than just mine guiding that brush.


2 comments:

  1. Philip,

    I rarely comment on the blogs I read but I had to write and tell you how great it is to hear your insight regarding 'Summer Nights'. I recently watched William Kloss describe this painting in his 'Lifelong Learning' lecture (http://www.waylaid.com/samples/pdfs/Teaching_Company_American_Art.pdf)
    and he believed this painting to be one of Homer's few works that take a step away from direct representation. IOWs, Kloss felt the light on the couple was invented, otherwise the spectators would also be illuminated. But the light could easily come from a window or door.

    Thank you, Leecia Price

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  2. Hi Leecia,

    Thanks for your comment. Whatever the case, isn't this a magical painting! It's a real credit to Homer's imagination that he could turn such a scene into such a moving painting. It's got everything one could want.

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