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Dancing women, waves, and the joys of Winslow Homer’s ‘Summer Night’

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

By Globe Staff 

An execrable dancer myself, I get more joy out of seeing others dance than almost anything else. I say “almost” because, among other things, I quite like moonlight, crashing waves, and painting.

This fine picture by Winslow Homer is therefore the equivalent, for me, of tiramisu, that great Italian dessert (the name means “pick me up”) combining coffee, chocolate, ladyfingers, rum, sugar, and creamy cheese: too many good things all at once. (But really, just the right amount.)

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“A Summer Night,” as it’s titled, is on show in the permanent collection galleries at Harvard Art Museums. It doesn’t belong there. It’s on extended loan from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, where it normally resides. The visit is the French museum’s thank you to Harvard for sending one of its own masterpieces, Frederic Bazille’s “Summer Scene,” to Paris for a Bazille show that opens Nov. 15.

Homer was 54 and working at full throttle in Prouts Neck, Maine, when he painted “Summer Night” in 1890. After traveling to England in 1881, he had distilled his previously wide range of subjects (farm scenes, boys, fashionable women) to just two: the sea and the woods.

He was searching for focus. He wanted to shake off the idea, still perpetuated by some critics, that he was just a glorified illustrator with dubious technique, and to home in on moodier, more elemental subjects.

James Whistler, the cosmopolitan aesthete who usually occupies an opposite pole in 19th-century American painting to Homer, was clearly on his mind. In paintings like “Sleigh Ride” and “The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog,” he played with extremely minimal compositions and striking effects of light and atmosphere that were all about evoking poetic moods.

But Whistler would never have included the two sturdy women dancing in the foreground of “Summer Night,” nor the crowd of wave-watchers gorgeously silhouetted against the silvery sea. (Note the subtle way in which the curve in the fabric of the dancer’s dress mirrors a looser curve in the arrangement of the wave-watchers: the two curves form a tender circle at the center of the composition.)

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The women recall the fishermen’s wives carrying baskets, fishing nets, and children that Homer had painted in Gloucester and across the Atlantic in Cullercoats, England.

In “Summer Night,” Homer’s foreground figures seem just as monumental and heroic as those women. But instead of working, weighed down, windblown, and worried for their menfolk, these two dancers embrace. You can feel the sensuous relaxation in their bodies, the sweet consolation of touch and movement.

Those bodies are real and have heft, in a way that Whistler — his subjects always on the verge of evanescing — would never have thought to convey.

The woman facing us smiles: She is listening to the music of the waves, or the music in her head, which is shaped by the rhythms of the sea. “A body wholly body” and “the maker of the song she sang,” she recalls the singer by the sea in Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West,” whose voice miraculously “mastered the night and portioned out the sea.”

SUMMER NIGHT

By Winslow Homer

At Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org


Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.