WILLIAMSTOWN — Pleasure, drama, sturdiness, light. These are the qualities (along with a potentially endless list of free associations, starting with childhood, weather, war, danger, and death) that spring to mind when contemplating the work of Winslow Homer.
The opportunity to do just that comes around with dependable regularity in these parts. So it’s just as well that yet another quality — inexhaustibility — is equally present. Who gets sick of looking at Homer? No one I know.
Williamstown has long been one of the pilgrimage sites for lovers of Homer, mainly because one of his more passionate and wealthy admirers was Robert Sterling Clark (1877-1956), the founder of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.
Between 1915 and 1955, when the museum opened, Clark assembled the finest collection of Homer works by any single person after the artist’s lifetime. In deference both to his longstanding passion and, of course, to Homer’s popularity, the Clark builds temporary exhibitions around aspects of its Homer collection almost every year.
This summer’s show, “Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History,” is a re staging, right down to the title, of a major effort, organized in fall 2005 by Marc Simpson, associate director of the Williams College graduate program in the history of art, with help from Susannah Maurer, who was then a graduate student at Williams. This 2013 incarnation is fleshed out by some interesting loans from Williams College Museum of Art and a private collector. It is also accompanied by an excellent catalog (the earlier show had only a brochure) that contains a complete illustrated checklist of the more than 200 Homer works in the Clark’s collection, and an essay by Simpson about its formation.
What you’ll see at the Clark are 11 splendid oil paintings, among them “Summer Squall,” “Undertow,” “The Bridle Path, White Mountains,” and “The Last Goose at Yorktown.” The latter, a rarely seen loan from a private collection, shows two Union soldiers sneaking up on an unsuspecting candidate for dinner — and possibly breakfast and lunch too.
There are also 18 of Homer’s ravishing watercolors, dating from 1874, a year after he took up the medium. Four are from private lenders in New York, two from Williams College.
And last but not least, there are dozens of drawings, etchings, lithographs and chromolithographs, letters, photographs, illustrated books, and wood engravings.
The wood engravings, most of them done after Homer drawings for Harper’s Weekly and a handful of other magazines between the early 1860s and the mid 1870s, often feel like the artist’s finest achievement. It’s a true pleasure seeing so many of them crammed flush against each other and covering the wall.
Most artists would suffer from such a crowded hang. Homer doesn’t: His feeling for the emotion and drama in simplified, compressed forms prompted Clark himself to compare Homer with Piero della Francesca. This feeling, or knack, gives rise to his two strongest qualities, lucidity and sculptural solidity, and there’s very little you can do to suppress it.
It’s in these gorgeous wood engravings that the artist’s flinty emotional restraint is allowed to spill over into something more sociable and voluble, veering at times into hilarity. An early wood engraving, “The Bathe at Newport,” for instance, may prefigure Homer’s later preoccupation with crashing surf and solitude. But it is itself preoccupied with the visual chaos and crashing comedy of ungainly humans crowding the shallows.
The vantage point is notable, and typically inventive: Homer is in the water with his subjects (a viewpoint that no one at the time could have imagined the recently invented camera adopting). He invites us to savor the scene’s visual overlap and disorder, even as the appearance of what looks to me like a shark’s dorsal fin in the foreground prompts us to imagine the view from underwater, and the birds wheeling above encourage yet another view (presumably just as comical).
“Fireworks on the Night of the Fourth of July,” with its improbable vantage point a head or two above the crowd, is just as busy, and just as legible: Your eyes scan the image and they don’t miss a beat. And how can you not love the detail at bottom right: a firework landing on a surprised man’s top hat?
There are other, better-known works, including the marvelous “Snap-the-Whip,” a classic post-Civil War image of childhood high jinks haunted by death, and “A Country Store — Getting Weighed,” an image of “pretty healthy girls who are indulging in the mild dissipation of being weighed,” as the accompanying caption in Harper’s Weekly aptly put it.
After seeing some of these wood engravings at a New York dealer in 1941, the sharp-eyed Clark noted in his diary: “They portray the life of the times from about 1863 to 1875 or so — Really admirable some of them . . . Lots of movement . . . A really great artist.” What could any puffed-up piece of art criticism add to that?
Clark had purchased his first Homer, an unremarkable painting called “The Rooster,” in New York in 1915. (Homer had died in 1910, at 74). It cost him $800. He later sold it. Before the end of World War I, Clark had acquired the painting “Two Guides,” as well as two watercolors, “The Eagle’s Nest” and “A Good Pool, Saguenay River”— masterpieces all three.
In 1923 and 1924, in the wake of his acrimonious break with his brother Stephen, Clark spent almost $140,000 (“an immense sum for the era,” writes Simpson) on works by Homer, among them “Summer Squall,” “Undertow,” and “Eastern Point.”
“Eastern Point” he later sold, before having a change of heart and, after many years of trying and failing, buying it back. He paid for his indecision: The price the second time around was far higher than he paid for any other Homer.
“Undertow,” although it is among the grandest and most sparkling of Homer’s canvases, is a picture I cannot look at without some discomfort: Virile to a fault, those lifesavers may be doing a great job, but must they pose and preen like that?
It’s unfair to project 20th-century hysteria and catastrophe back onto poor 19th-century Homer, but the almost comically extreme masculinity of the lifesavers makes “Undertow” an unfortunate prefiguration of familiar (kitsch) tropes of 20th-century totalitarian art.
Among the highlights of the show, for me, is the 1868 painting, “The Bridle Path, White Mountains,” a luminous, high-altitude vision set against haze and hot rock. It shows a young woman sitting sidesaddle on a white horse. The invisible trail connecting her with her riding companions, both far ahead and behind, forms a horseshoe shape, or a wave, cresting up close.
The formation itself implies the swell and recession of storytelling; no explicit narrative is needed. Lighted from behind, the woman is ours to observe but not to know: We have caught her in her solitude, expressionless, inviolate.
It’s a different story in “An October Day,” the show’s finest watercolor — although the composition is uncannily similar. In the foreground we see the head and antlers of a deer swimming across a lake in the Adirondack Mountains. Autumnal trees on the far slope are reflected in the lake’s placid waters.
But in the distance, to left and to right of the deer, are its enemies: a dog on the far shore, which has just chased the deer into the water, and a hunter, in a canoe, waiting to shoot.
This method of hunting, forcing the prey into water, was called “hounding,” and, like sharpshooting, a new practice during the Civil War which Homer also depicted, it was condemned at the time for its barbarism. The picture’s moral tension — innocence and beauty on the one hand, diabolical death on the other — was a Homer specialty.