CAMBRIDGE — “Winslow Homer: Eyewitness” begins with a gamut of the young artist’s fast-and-furious Civil War drawings, which were the visual meat of Harper’s Weekly’s reportage from the era. But really, that’s just curator Ethan Lasser clearing his throat.
You’ll be struck, no doubt, by the much-shown “The Army of the Potomac — A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty,” a Union soldier perched in a tree with his rifle trained at some unseen enemy in the distance, which is wartime Homer at his plainspoken best.
But the key moment comes about halfway in, where maybe the most important work in a show about Homer, deemed to be the American painter of his time, isn’t by Homer at all. It’s by his Harper’s Weekly colleague Thomas Nast, a treacly homage to Abraham Lincoln at war’s end in Richmond, Va., where the president is embraced by blacks and whites alike as the great liberator, a paragon of freedom.
Homer, meanwhile — servant of truth, chronicler of the rupture at the core of the nation’s soul — never turned his painterly powers toward emancipation at all, Lasser told me. It certainly seems an exclusion worth noting, and so Lasser has, with a subtly insistent hand.
Near the Nast work, a pair of Homer’s great early paintings hangs, made when he was barely 30: “The Brush Harrow,” from 1865, and “Prisoners From the Front,” from a year later. They’re starkly different and equally enigmatic. The former is a torpid scene of two young boys tending a ragged field alongside a bony horse with a US brand on its haunch — picking up the pieces in the immediate aftermath of a nation shattered by war. The latter, though, feels almost heroic, and not for the Unionist side.
With a scruffily ennobled Virginian commanding the center of the frame, looming over his Northern captors with straight-backed, dignified defiance, it’s an unsettling painting of uncommon power — ruddy battlefields all around, bleak, washed-out skies above. It’s also Homer’s most explicit take at wrapping up a war fought over slavery, without a single African-American to be seen. It’s a painting about reconciliation made with a staunch blind spot — Homer, witness to history, bluntly eliding its most basic fact.
Who knows why that might be? Lasser suggests without damning. The one work in the show where Homer places black subjects squarely in the midst of a war moment is far from flattering: a jubilant slave, now free, dancing fireside for the amusement of a company of union soldiers, her hair top-knotted. Her companion, a fiddler, plays nearby, his face locked in caricature with an improbably toothy grin. Later watercolors, decades beyond the din of war, capture black subjects as romanticized primitives amid the burgeoning growth of the Caribbean tourist industry — coral diving here, swigging from a coconut there.
Does that make Homer anything less than a man of his times? Maybe not. But it does make you think. Thinking — or rethinking, really — has been Lasser’s agenda with Homer for some time. This is no small thing. When we consider an American canon, Homer sits right up top: a plainspoken virtuoso of the real, with a supreme command of color and a blunt narrative sense that made his painting distinctly American. In Europe, they made history paintings — epic tableaux of immortal, heroic moments; Homer embraced the unexceptional, the quotidian, and imbued it with a frankness that gave his work its force.
His closest European kin might be the great British painter John Constable, with his eye for subtle shifts in land and sky that portended a changing world. But where Constable could see eternity in a bank of clouds, Homer saw only mist, cutting off and closing in. Homer was “almost barbarously simple” with “no imagination,” wrote Henry James, famously, arguing that the painter “contrives to elevate this rather blighting negative into a blooming and honorable positive” through his tight devotion to detail and fussy virtuosity. (Despite Homer’s lack of poetry, James conceded, “there is something one likes about him.”)
Was Homer, born right here in Boston, not the staunch abolitionist you’d expect, as “Eyewitness” seems to suggest? Or was Homer’s interest in observation, not declaration, choosing tiny dramas over epic tales? You’ll find no “Washington Crossing the Delaware” here or anywhere else under Homer’s name. Perhaps it’s the journalist failing to become a novelist, evolving instead into an expert maker of short fiction.
Making small stories means editing out, and Homer’s exclusions, like anyone’s, can be as telling as what he kept in. But there are some missing pieces in “Eyewitness,” too: “The Bright Side,” say, an 1865 painting where Homer captures a group of battle-spent African-American Union soldiers outside their tent at an encampment. Also significantly absent is a postwar chapter: Homer traveled to the South during Reconstruction and made remarkable pieces like “A Visit From the Old Mistress,” from 1876, a claustrophobic scene cast in ocher shadow of three liberated slaves eyeing their former owner with blank-eyed scorn.
Homer didn’t seek definitive moments so much as tiny dramas, allowing them to accrue as chapters into a record of intent. “Eyewitness,” relatively pocket-size with just a few dozen pieces, examines that intent through Homer’s ringside seat to the war that still defines the core of American identity. If the Civil War was the nation’s crucible, then slavery remains its thick residue, something Homer knew better than most.
Where Homer landed on all this is the meat of what “Eyewitness” openly wonders, to little resolution. Homer was young during the war — so young, in his 20s while embedded with Union regiments — which leaves me speculating about a crisis of confidence amid the devastation. Was Homer making a statement, or catering to reader expectations? That’s one of many questions “Eyewitness” leaves hanging. In a realm previously unquestionable — sealed canons, official histories — this is a museum doing the work the moment demands. I’m just not sure I’m convinced.
At the Cape Ann Museum, “Homer at the Beach: A Marine Painter’s Journey” makes no such demands, though it’s good company to “Eyewitness” whether it means to be or not. Its 51 works are strung along a tight timeline: From 1869, when a 33-year-old Homer returned from England and showed his first seaside picture, to 1880, a year of hectic production where the artist’s craft reached its peak, especially as a watercolorist capturing the ocean’s constant churn.
Together, the two exhibitions help complete the picture of an artist forever marked by war. At Harvard, late, gorgeous watercolors — of a solitary figure in a dense glade of green, rifle shouldered, or of a canoeist casting a line in a lonely mountain lake — have a jarring resonance with the apparently bucolic scenes that line the galleries in Gloucester.
For Homer, the sea was incomplete solace. “Children on the Beach,” from 1873, should be blissful; instead its group of figures are separated by a ribbon of icy blue-green, all of their faces turned away, both from us and each other. “The Sand Dune,” from 1871, feels desolate, a lone woman in a frilly skirt, back turned, plodding up an incline of beach ragged with grasses. Even “By the Shore,” a beach scene in brilliant sun, has an air of impending doom, with a curtain of black sky beyond sunbathers and swimmers and the threat of disaster looming.
They’re spectacular works, intricately painted and quivering with radiant gloom. Even in these most Arcadian scenes, desolation reigns. No one in his pictures faces the viewer, which is typical in Homer’s work, and especially later on. What was it, exactly, he couldn’t look in the eye?
With the war long over, Homer carried it with him still, to deeper and deeper reclusion. In 1883, he moved to seaside Prouts Neck, Maine, where he lived alone until he died in 1910. At Harvard, a final, riveting image sticks: a solo canoeist, back turned square, paddling stoically away — away from you, the viewer, and everything else. It could have been the artist himself, and likely was. “A Yankee Robinson Crusoe,” the New York Evening Post called him, holed up in Maine, and “a hermit with a brush.” A sign at his property read: “Mr. Homer Is Not at Home,” though he likely was, painting in solitude. Where Homer found himself, at journey’s end, was alone.
WINSLOW HOMER: EYEWITNESS
Through Jan. 5. Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge. www.harvardartmuseums.org
HOMER AT THE BEACH: A MARINE PAINTER’S JOURNEY
Through Dec. 1, Cape Ann Museum, 27 Pleasant St., Gloucester. www.capeannmuseum.org