Yet, the pictures described above are by Winslow Homer — an artist with unrivaled prestige in the history of American art. It’s just not cool to call Homer sentimental.
So, take a closer look. Painted in 1865, Homer’s “The Brush Harrow” is a very famous Civil War picture that shows those barefoot boys doing the work of men. They are doing the work of men because the men — more than 600,000 of them — did not return from war, leaving their families brokenhearted and often near-destitute.
Homer painted the other picture — the boy looking out to sea — several years later, during a long summer stay in the port of Gloucester, Mass. This was in 1873. Homer was making his first serious foray into watercolors, the medium in which he made arguably his greatest work. He treated the subject of the boy waiting for his father’s return first in watercolor, then in oil (the painting is in the National Gallery of Art), and then as a wood engraving.
Gloucester, at that time, was pulling in more fish than any port in America. But fishing out of Gloucester (as readers or watchers of “The Perfect Storm” could appreciate) was a deadly business. The mortality rate for Gloucester fisherman was higher than for Union soldiers during the Civil War. Between 1866 and 1890, more than 380 schooners and 2,450 Gloucester men never returned from the fishing grounds.
In a single storm on Aug. 24, 1873, nine Gloucester vessels and 128 fishermen were lost. Homer was there. He digested the news: “Day by day the sad news came,” read one report, “and there is mourning throughout the town as we pen this article. Wives are weeping for their husbands . . . sisters are mourning for brothers, and little children ask, in plaintive voices, ‘Why does not father come home?’ ”
How many of the dozens of children Homer rendered in watercolor that year might have been fatherless? It’s impossible to know.
Twentieth-century critics who sensed both the greatness and the modernity of Homer strenuously denied what was in front of their eyes. They tied themselves in knots trying to explain why his art was not sentimental, why his vision was actually manly, modern, clear-eyed and tough.
They were wasting their energies, as Rebecca Bedell explains in her wise and brilliant 2018 book, “Moved to Tears: Rethinking the Art of the Sentimental in the United States.” Bedell describes Homer as “among the greatest, if not the greatest, of American sentimental artists.” He was, she continues, “deeply and profoundly empathetic, often tender, as well as broadly and pervasively nostalgic.”
There are different ways to define “sentimental.” But if it means “full of feeling,” Homer had every right to respond to his subjects with feeling. He had lived and worked through the Civil War, seen it up close. In Gloucester, he had endured that storm, witnessed its aftermath.
Two Homer exhibitions in Massachusetts — worth traveling to see — present an opportunity to think not only about why we like Homer so much but about what we want, fundamentally, from art. How much feeling — not false feeling but powerful emotion tethered to reality — can we take?
A lot, Bedell would argue. And it might be good for us. Sentimentality may have become a dirty word in the 20th century. But “for more than a hundred years,” writes Bedell, “from the late 18th century to the late 19th century, the sentimental was one of the most vital, protean, productive forces shaping the nation’s art.
“It defined for art an activist, interventionist role in the public realm,” she continues. And it gave art “the power to touch, educate, and transform its audience’s feelings, to connect them to others, and, through these means, to effect social change.”
Homer is associated with the Civil War, with children (especially boys) and with the sea. What makes these two shows so stimulating is that, in unexpected ways, they connect all three. In fact, the more you think about both shows, the more they overlap.
The more notable of the two is “Homer at the Beach: A Marine Painter’s Journey, 1869-1880” at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester. The setting is apt. Between those years, Homer made the majority of his marine pictures in Gloucester. Organized by William H. Cross, the show is just upstairs from permanent galleries filled with the luminous marine paintings of Fitz Henry Lane, a generation older than Homer. It boasts terrific loans, including two versions of “Waiting for Dad (Longing)” and its companion engraving, “Dad’s Coming!,” and is accompanied by an excellent catalogue.
There are oil paintings, wood engravings, drawings, maps, costumes and photographs, but the show is especially rich in Homer’s ravishing watercolors. Overall, it offers an intimate, textured sense of the many aspects of coastal life that appealed to Homer in the first decade of his career as a painter.
Despite his proven skills as an illustrator, Homer’s first beach paintings, made at Long Beach, N.J., in 1868-1869, were not especially promising. Yet critics who faulted them still registered how much feeling Homer had in him. “Feeling cannot be learned; execution can,” wrote one. “Mr. Homer is full of the former.”
“Winslow Homer: Eyewitness” at Harvard Art Museums is drawn almost entirely from the university’s collection. Its focus is the Civil War years, which Homer spent as a “Special Artist” on assignment for Harper’s Weekly. The show is rounded out by some wonderful late watercolors, including “Sailboat and Fourth of July Fireworks” and “Sea Garden, Bahamas.”
The show’s curators, Makeda Best and Ethan Lasser, are interested in the tension in Homer’s work between eyewitness reportage and pictorial storytelling. Like today’s front line photojournalists, Homer and his competitors were trying to forge a kind of “eyewitness aesthetic.” They filled their illustrations with telling details and looked for ways to emphasize the immediacy and credibility that their own presence at the scene gave them.
At the same time, they were telling stories. And the stories they told inevitably appealed to sentiment. Stories are mired in subjectivity, compromising their claims to truth. They transform real people (who are complex and unknowable) into types, and real situations (which are messy and fluid) into legible tableaux. Juggling all this, for both artists and writers, is endlessly challenging. There is always a cost; there are always complicating factors.
Sentimentality is one issue. There is also the question of tact. When you are covering war for an audience including children, wives and mothers, for instance, how much of the reality of the battlefield should you show? In Homer’s judgment, very little. He was more interested in the amusements and vexations of camp life, in scenes of preparation and aftermath. But he brought tremendous subtlety and interest to these subjects.
Race came into it. If the art of illustration involves “types,” when does a recognizable “type” become a degrading caricature? How clearly did Homer see the distinction?
Moreover, if the Civil War was about slavery, what were the wider implications of a Union artist showing freed black people’s labor, thereby acknowledging their contribution to the common cause? And what might this mean for their citizenship rights? Homer’s war pictures can seem evasive on these points, as if he didn’t want to tell stories that might make his audience uncomfortable.
Homer was, as Bedell points out, part of a group of painters who specialized in scenes of nostalgia. The qualities that made him different, she writes — his ability to distill and concentrate scenes by the judicious removal of detail and his feeling for narrative ambiguity (is the boy’s fisherman dad visible on the horizon or not?) — actually encourage the viewer’s involvement and urge to identify. These qualities, she writes, make Homer “a better sentimental painter not an unsentimental one.”
There should be a premium on truth in art. But there should also be no such thing as too much feeling.
Homer at the Beach: A Marine Painter’s Journey, 1869-1880 Through Dec. 1 at the Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, Mass. capeannmuseum.org.
Winslow Homer: Eyewitness Through Jan. 5 at the Harvard Art Museums, Boston. harvardartmuseums.org.