Thursday December 27, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Two men stand together out in the wilds of the Adirondack mountains, one a younger, taller man wearing a red flannel shirt -- the bright color intended to repel insects, according to Viktorya Vilk, projects manager of Collections Interpretations at the Clark Art Institute -- the other an older figure with a big bushy beard and a flattened hat.

Both are carrying axes, indicating that the men are guides who would use these axes to clear trails. Behind them, in the distance, is the recognizable Beaver Mountain.

From the clothing the two men are wearing to the colors of the landscape, it's a good guess that it's early fall, perhaps morning.

Though there's much sun and blue sky and it's clearly a fine day for hiking, there are some light, puffy white clouds that appear to be almost moving as they hang above the two guides.

The older figure is pointing at something, wanting his companion to look ahead and to their right. All of this makes the viewer of "Two Guides" feel as if he has spotted the two men at a very specific moment in time. How long, after all, does it take to point at something before our hand falls back to our side?

And yet, at the same time, it has the feel of a time-lapsed photograph, of time passing, as if we can almost see those clouds moving past, right to left, the light changing, the entire day or perhaps even season (a life?) passing them and us by.

Such terrain was not exactly home for Winslow Homer. He was born in 1836 in Cambridge and, having come from a family of modest means, he was an almost entirely self-taught artist.

As a young adult he joined the front lines of the Civil War to record much of the action.

He eventually moved to New York City to become an illustrator, all the while working on more ambitious oil paintings that went mostly unnoticed by critics and buyers alike. Restless, he took a trip to France in 1866, a journey we unfortunately don't know much about given how little was recorded of it.

Back in New York, Homer journeyed over 20 times to a friend's family farm that overlooked Beaver Mountain. And it was there, on one of these many trips, says Vilk, that Homer most likely sketched the first drawings that led to the eventual "Two Guides" painting.

She is quick to add, there are no such preliminary sketches still in existence. Given the size of the painting, it's likely that the final painting would have been completed in 1875 back in his studio.

Homer was nearly 40 years old at the time, clearly in the middle of his life and at the peak of his artistic powers -- he died 35 years later, in 1910.

While the painting is most likely influenced by that earlier trip Homer took to France, informed by other early impressionistic painters, there is nothing vague or impressionistic about this moment or this particular painting. A stubborn realism clings to the work.

We know, for instance, who the figures in the painting actually are: Orson "Old Mountain" Phelps, the shorter, older figure, was a well-known and written about guide at the time, and Charles Monroe Holt, the younger, taller one, was also a real-life mountain guide. Both were from Keene Valley, N.Y.

When the painting was first shown, at the National Academy of Design's annual exhibition in New York in 1878, it was not well received. According to Vilk, the critics found the painting "sloppy, slovenly, sketchy" and it sat in obscurity for nearly 15 years.

During those years, however, Impressionism, and Homer himself, caught on, and so when the American artist showed the painting again in 1890, times and tastes had clearly changed. This time around the critics, some of the same ones who had earlier dismissed the painting, now praised it.

Thomas Clarke (no relation to Robert Sterling) was certainly convinced of its merit: he purchased the painting, for somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 to $1,000, according to Vilk, and soon after that Robert Sterling Clark bought it from Clarke for a reported $10,000, believing Homer to be our greatest American artist -- an opinion he seemed to hold unwaveringly, given his many acquisitions of Homer's work. 

Spoiler alert: the Clark plans a very big Winslow Homer exhibit this coming summer.

While it can be said that Homer is a bit of a mish-mash of artistic styles -- impressionistic, naturalistic, landscapist, portrait artist -- few would dispute that he is distinctly American, and "Two Guides" helps make the case that he is one of our great, if not the greatest, artist this side of the pond.