NOBODY DISLIKES the paintings of Winslow Homer because there's nothing to dislike about them; they're as warm and comforting as a campfire. But in the breast of this solid Victorian burgher there burned a clear and steady flame whose light suffuses a spare but vivid exhibition at the National Museum of American Art.
The 28 works include 15 oils that are the cream of Homer's "late marines," produced in the 1890s at Prout's Neck, Maine, a summer resort where his close-knit family maintained a compound. Here Homer (1836-1910) spent the closing decades of his life painting the complex, understated seascapes that fulfilled the promise of his long growth from illustrator and designer to first-rank artist.
Seawater ran in Homer's veins. He was descended from seafarers on both sides, and never was truly at ease out of sight of the sea. While his family fled inland in the fall, the proper Bostonian bachelor usually wintered over in his drafty studio, exulting in the storms that lashed the "stern and rockbound coast."
Although often awkward with figures and faces, Homer understood the sea as few painters ever have. He often sought criticism, and gratefully repainted one scene when a local fisherman said that the dory Homer had depicted wasn't riding right. But Homer knew what he knew. He responded with scorn to those who complained that he overdramatized the turbulent margin of the Gulf Stream, which must be seen to be believed, and with heat when critics carped at the "cheap colors" he used in "West Point, Prout's Neck" (1900), whose intense reds can seem overdone only to someone who hasn't watched enough sunsets.
The show, organized by the University of Rochester, features 13 works on paper, including some preliminary sketches that are curiously inept for a man so long and successfully employed in drawing and lithography. Beside them are wonderful charcoal-and-chalk drawings, especially "The Smuggler of Prout's Neck" (1884), a fugitive figure carrying a barrel of untaxed spirits up a foggy cliffside path.
In the watercolor "Sea and Rocks During a Storm" (1894), Homer creates subtle tension by freezing the moment between the surge and retreat of a wave among rocks. "Study: Waves" (1890-1900) is casual-seeming, fiercely exact and lovingly rendered in crayon on blotting paper.
Always the eye is drawn back to the oils. Just as surely as he knows how variously sunlight limns the battleground between the sea and the land, Homer knows about the absence of light. In "Moonlight, Wood Island Light" (1894), he gives us in one frame the ethereal glow of moonlight backlighting a breaking wave and the darker-than-dark darkness defined by a beacon far off across the sea.
When Homer's friendly rival, John LaFarge, complained that he was using too many dark colors, Homer bet LaFarge he could do it up brown. The result was "The West Wind" (1891), a brown-on-brown exercise in oils that drew quick praise from critics. " 'The West Wind' is brown," he wrote LaFarge. "It is damned good! Send me your check for $100."
LaFarge got off easy, considering that he was jousting with our prince of darkness.