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"On Vacation with Winslow Homer: Wood Engravings of an American Master" at Morris Museum
Winslow Homer, Snap the Whip, 1873. Wood engraving on paper, Private Collection (Harper’s Weekly magazine, September 20, 1873).

MORRISTOWN, NJ.- This summer, visitors to the Morris Museum can enjoy the pleasures of the seashore and countryside, as seen through the eyes of American master Winslow Homer. The Morris Museum is pleased to announce the new exhibition, On Vacation with Winslow Homer: Wood Engravings of an American Master, which will be on view from June 7 – October 7, 2012. Focusing on the artist’s early career as an illustrator, the exhibition features twenty-eight wood engravings. The selected works reflect the timeless appeal of Homer’s love of country life at its simplest and his delight in depicting children and adults in a range of vacation activities such as bathing, hiking, fishing, clambakes, picnics, games, and 4th of July fireworks.

Wood Engravings of an American Master

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) began his career as a graphic artist, and to a large extent he remained one his entire life. Early on, Homer demonstrated an observant eye, intuitive perception, and an instinctive feeling for pattern, tone, and light. One of the most revered American artists of all time, he was essentially self-taught.

His vast body of work includes more than 250 published illustrations, the majority completed before the age of 35. The work he did in his early career as an illustrator captured an enormous range of subjects and was pivotal to his future development as a fine artist. His graphic art evolved into carefully designed pictures that blurred the division between the popular art of illustration and “high art” painting. Over time, Homer’s magazine illustrations were no longer even related to the text but were presented as independent works of art.

A model of Yankee ingenuity, he was a prolific artist but also a frugal one. Frequently, he borrowed, edited, or otherwise transformed elements from two or more paintings to create compositions that are among the most finely designed of all his works, comparable to his most mature paintings. Examples of this practice that are featured in this exhibition include Sea-side Sketches—a Clam-bake and Ship-Building, Gloucester Harbor.

Homer was also adept at depicting familiar aspects of American life with quiet ambiguity. Sensitive to the changing status of women, he explored the tension between traditional roles and the new choices facing women in the post-Civil War period. In capturing the spirit of contemporary American women, he presented them with an air of independence engaged in physical activity outdoors. He celebrated country pleasures through evocative images of children and families engaged in leisure activities at the seashore and in the country. In so doing, he portrayed a revitalized and mature America, distinct from Europe. His refreshing images of children playing, fishing, or otherwise idling away their time present a picture of idyllic childhood. Often his pictures are marked by mischief, revealing Homer’s wit.
This exhibition presents a selection of some of Winslow Homer’s best illustrations that demonstrate the artist’s keen observations of Americans at play in the great outdoors, placing these works in their art historical and social history contexts.

A New Medium for a Gifted Artist

Winslow Homer’s emergence as a prominent graphic artist in the mid-nineteenth century coincided with the emergence of the illustrated newspaper, a medium as revolutionary in its day as the Internet has been in the modern day.

Up until the mid-nineteenth century, the illustrated books and magazines that the public had come to enjoy were costly and time-consuming to produce. Because they required planning far in advance of their publication date, they lacked the timeliness of a newspaper and their high cost restricted the number of copies sold.

All of this changed in 1842 with the Illustrated London News, which presented world news using artist-engravers as illustrator-writers. The illustrated “wonder” was achieved by using the newly-developed steam press and by the refinement of one of the oldest methods of printing—the woodcut.

Well known in Europe, woodcuts were printed long before the Gutenberg Bible.
Relatively easy to produce, the draftsman simply drew the object he wanted to produce on a block of wood; an engraver then would carve away all but the black lines, so that the lines of the drawing stood out in relief. However, the softness and flexibility that makes wood easy to carve also makes it a medium that lacks durability. The lines had to be thick to avoid being destroyed in the carving process and the characteristics of the finished product lacked the refinement associated with lithographs and etchings.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, it was discovered that drawing on very fine-grained boxwood, that had been coated and polished until it resembled the smoothness of paper, allowed for a much finer, freer line to be carved than had been possible previously. With the addition of a process that transferred the wood engraving to a metal plate, a large number of illustrations could be produced quickly and inexpensively. The rise of pictorial weeklies altered the face of magazine publication with the frequency of their publication, the size and breadth of audience, and the power of visual communication.

Expert engravers and illustrators were needed to create reproducible wood engravings. Wood engravers were rare in this country but with the boom of the pictorial weekly, young talented engravers from France flocked to America in search of work. One of the young French engravers, who worked for Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion in Boston, introduced Homer to the wood block. Soon after, young Homer sold his first illustration to the staid Ballou’s. His work quickly began to appear in New York’s smart, chic Harper’s Weekly. In 1859 Ballou’s went out of business and Homer moved to New York City to be closer to his prime source of income, Harper’s Weekly, and to learned to paint.

Although Harper’s extended a tempting offer to be a staff artist, Homer declined. As he explained years later,

From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone, I have had no master; and never shall have any.

Over time, Homer’s illustrations evolved from a linear to a more tonal form of expression. Ultimately, his pictures were no longer reportorial or even related to the text. They were valued as pure works of art that expressed a comparable level of detail and complexity of composition as his paintings. As shown in this exhibition, in some instances they bore a close affinity to his paintings; in other instances the composition of a particular illustration was greater than the sum of its parts.

A Guide to Collecting the Wood Engravings of Winslow Homer, K.Manning, Los Angeles, California, 1975.
The Graphic Art of Winslow Homer, Lloyd Goodrich, The Museum of Graphic Art, 1968.
The Wood Engravings of Winslow Homer, edited with an introduction by Barbara Gelman, Crown Publishers, 1969.
Winslow Homer and the Pictorial Press, David Tatham, Syracuse University Press, 2003.

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