An elemental struggle—a fundamental blessing

A Significant exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through January 28, and during following months in Boston and New York, is providing the public a rare opportunity to view the evolution of an extraordinary artist. Winslow Homer is regarded by many as perhaps the greatest painter in America of the last century. And by the time he finished his final canvas and laid down his brushes in 1910, his work had gone through considerable changes in its subjects and themes.

Homer's career as a painter really began in earnest while he was covering the Civil War on assignment for Harper's Weekly. After 1879, however, his work went in a radically different direction. His later paintings, which include stark seascapes, men fighting the sea, and the ocean pounding against rocky shorelines, "had boiled things down to their most basic elements," as one critic puts it. Here is "just the sea and the earth; the elemental battle of waves against rock, over and over" (Ken Chowder, "Winslow Homer, the quintessential American artist," Smithsonian, October 1995, p. 116).

Yet one might argue that even in his earlier works, during the Civil War and its aftermath, Homer had also been concerned with elemental struggles. His record of a war that not only had split a nation but had torn apart friends and brothers as well, was surely depicting something more than the conflict on a battlefield. Could it be that the artist was also portraying the battle in people's hearts and minds?

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January 15, 1996

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