« back to list of Articles

American Artists at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Originally published in April 2006 in The American in Britain Magazine

In 2006 The Dulwich Picture Gallery hosted two exhibitions of American 19th century artists. The major exhibit, ‘Winslow Homer: Poet of the Sea’, was Homer’s first one-man show in England. The smaller show,’ In the Age of Winslow Homer: American Prints 1880-1900’, a private collection of 50 etchings, was a delightful companion piece to Homer’s paintings.

A remarkable gallery in Dulwich, South London houses an outstanding collection of Old Master paintings. Founded by Sir Francis Bourgeois upon his death in 1811, the Dulwich Picture Gallery is England’s oldest and first public art gallery. Bourgeois stipulated in his will that his ‘Royal Collection’ should be made available for the ‘inspection of the public’. For almost 200 years this purpose-built building, designed by Sir John Soane, has been the perfect setting to display superb Old Masters, including works by Rubens, Murillo, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Watteau, Gainsborough and many more.

While the permanent collection of Old Master paintings continues to draw visitors from near and far, currently there are two stunning exhibitions which feature works by late 19th century American artists. The larger of the two exhibits: Winslow Homer: Poet of the Sea, captures a vibrant spirit in American art in this period. Although well known to Americans, this is Homer’s first-ever one-man show in England. His intense observation of life at sea, wilderness landscapes, together with wind beaten views of fisher folk are key themes. Critics regard Homer’s paintings, watercolours and sketches as being of equal rank with those of James McNeil Whistler and John Singer Sargent. Influences of the rich traditions in Western painting are present in his art.

Boston-born Homer (1836-1910) was self-taught. He learned his craft as an apprentice lithographer before moving on to New York City in 1859 where he briefly took art classes. Drawn to the momentous events of the American Civil War in 1861, Homer visited the front and captured important battle and figure images, most notably Prisoners from the Front, 1866. While living in Paris after the War, he showed two of his Civil War works at the Exposition Universelle in 1867 before returning home to the East Coast of the United States.

Winslow Homer’s relationship with the sea is a geographical journey. In his paintings and sketches from Gloucester, Massachusetts, the English village of Cullercoats in Northumberland (1881-1882), the Adirondacks, Canada, the Bahamas and ultimately in Prout’s Neck, Maine, Homer captured the sea in its many guises: its dangers, calm, beauty and tranquillity. What we see are powerful poetic seascapes, raw wilderness, waves swirling around fishing boats, wet sands, beaches, fishermen challenged by leaping fish and women taking back the catch of the day beneath threatening skies. With speed and spontaneity, he mastered the technique of watercolour’s inherent transparent qualities. In his oils, paint is applied with expressive relish. There is energy and pattern in his work which sometimes prefigures abstraction. These are compelling images highlighting the dependency of humanity upon the natural world. They contain a visual language, a narrative realism, intimately bound up with naturalistic hues of light and colour.

In the oil, ‘Beach Scene’, circa 1889, pictured here, one cannot miss the charm and natural enjoyment of barefoot children playing at the water’s edge, a story in itself. Here Homer’s narrative realism can be read as an innocent summer leisure activity. Oddly, this was originally a much larger painting but was cut in two after a critical reception. However, the exhibition here includes both parts of the painting hung side by side. So we, the viewers, can decide if we prefer one part or the whole. Our eyes can join the two together as they were originally intended to be. In ‘Three Boys on the Shore’, 1873, painted during a summer in Gloucester, you can almost feel the relaxed mood of these lads as they stretch themselves on rocks and gaze out to sea.

The years when Homer lived in Cullercoats are well represented in the exhibit. Here a unifying theme is ‘The Perils of the Sea’. In this secluded English fishing village, Homer reconciled his art with his love of narrative. ‘Tynemouth Sands’, 1882-83, pictured here, shows three idealised female figures in traditional garments walking along the beach at dusk. There is a sense of exhaustion about them as they carry the day’s heavy catch of fish. Homer’s portrayal of traditional fishing culture in Cullercoats expresses a substantive understanding of folk culture—perhaps soon to be lost to urban attractions. The Cullercoats sketches and paintings brilliantly capture a way of life, a struggle to survive from toiling with the sea. It is tempting to ask whether the sea will ultimately win.

Homer’s journey took him finally to austere and secluded Prout’s Neck, Maine in 1883. His 1884 painting ‘The Life Line’, pictured here, sweeps us into the roaring waves which appear nearly to engulf the couple suspended from the lifeline. The catalogue offers a dramatic description of the painting: “Almost out of sight on the left is a foundering vessel, to which a breeches buoy has been attached; by means of this pulley system a sailor or coastguard is lifting ashore a young woman who has fainted…….” As we gaze at this perilous scene, we must wonder if they made it to shore. Perhaps equally dramatic is Homer’s ‘Sharks’, 1885, and ‘Summer Squall’, 1904 (both pictured here). Homer reminds us yet again of nature’s vastness and its indifference to human lives.

‘In the Age of Winslow Homer: American Prints 1880-1900’, consists of fifty etchings from the private collection of Dave and Reba Williams. The Williams’ collection is hung in a separate room adjacent to the Homer exhibit. It perfectly complements Winslow Homer’s oeuvre. Homer, too, worked as an etcher. Following a trend begun in Europe, techniques of etching as an artistic medium peaked in the 1880s when etching clubs flourished in many American cities. Once again the sea is a prominent theme. Pictured here is ‘After The Storm’, 1886, by John Henry Hill. It seems that the turbulent waters have subsided, the sailboat has survived and an air of calm has arrived together with graceful gulls in the sky. Other etchings in this show display harbour views, ships at sea, landscapes, sentimental figures and domestic settings. This was a period when collectors were eager to buy. As the catalogue reminds us: “No house was complete without etchings among its furnishing. They held the same place of honor in the domestic décor of the average American as has been, at different times, enjoyed by Japanese fans, crazy quilt portières and porcelain jugs.”

Winslow Homer’s art together with his contemporary etchers look right at home in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It feels like these artists are friends visiting Britain though perhaps their arrival is long overdue. To welcome them, a Private View was held in the Gallery on February 22nd. Guests included the US Ambassador, Robert H. Tuttle, together with his wife Maria, and Mr. and Mrs. Dave and Reba Williams. Pictured here are the Ambassador and Mrs. Tuttle with Ian Dejardin, Gallery Director, and a group photo of Dave and Reba Williams with the Tuttles and Ian Dejardin. The Director, Ian Dejardin, is delighted that this exhibition has been possible. He intends to feature American artists in future shows. Meanwhile, set a date in your spring calendar to visit the Dulwich Picture Gallery before May 21st 2006. Plan your visit to allow time to enjoy a superb meal or tea in the newly built café. This is an exceptionally historic corner of London with parks and architecture to delight, all within walking distance from the Gallery.

Dulwich Picture Gallery Website: www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk
The American Friends: Contact- Dida Tait on +44 (0) 20 8299 8715
Exhibition Catalogues available in the Gallery Shop:
Winslow Homer: Poet Of The Sea. Edited by Sophie Lévy
This exhibit will open at the Musée d’Art Américain Giverny 18th June – 24th September 2006
Givergny / Terra Foundation for American Art
In the Age of Winslow Homer: American Prints 1880-1900
From the Collection of Reba and Dave Williams. 2005
Dulwich Picture Gallery: A Visitor’s Guide by Desmond Shawe-Taylor

Contact Abby Cronin, Arts Journalist.  website: www.abbycronin.co.uk
Email: artsjournalist@abbycronin.co.uk