19th-century free thinkers speak


In Boston in the early 1850s, a largely self-taught artist from Cambridge in his teens apprentices to a lithographer and draws illustrations for city journals. A largely self-taught writer in her teens publishes "the Rival Painters" in a popular weekly journal called "the Olive Branch."

She will become one of the best-known and best-loved writers in the nation. He will become one of America's foremost painters. And they will both become known -- and criticized -- and loved -- for their raw, bold, rugged and wholly living scenes.

Louisa May Alcott and Winslow Homer share roots and strong character. And both will have a voice in the Berkshires this summer. Across the county, art, readings and revealing biography look closely at the 19th century. They will meet some of its brightest people -- to see and hear what they really heard and saw.

The mid to late 1800s were a vigorous and troubled time. Homer painted life in the army camps of the Civil War, while Alcott nursed wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C. Louisa's mother, Abigail, wrote and spoke for abolition even before her Boston intellectual circle did -- and Homer painted scenes in the south after emancipation.

In some ways, the time helped them to speak.

Homer began his career as an illustrator when wood engraving became a new technology, and newspapers could print images cheaply and easily.

"People in the Midwest and in the West could now see Kaaterskill Falls or an almost-collision of carriages in a Boston street," said Marc Simpson, curator of American art at the Clark Art Institute. "People could afford to get these illustrations in east-coast journals and magazines. They open up a world of culture. Homer's illustrations were among the most popular and most successful."

Simpson, a Homer scholar and associate director of the Williams College graduate program in the history of art, has curated the summer show that will span Homer's career.

"A lot of (what) America in the 20th century thinks about is premised on images Homer made in the 19th century," Simpson said.

People think of outdoor scenes, of men and boys sailing in "Breeze up," of students playing "Snap-the-whip" outside their school house in the mountains.

"People bought them as truthful, but they were fictions," Simpson said. "He was painting an American rural countryside that was fast disappearing with urban and suburban expansion and industrialization. He was articulating his vision of what America could be and should be, for viewers at the time."

As the Civil War ended, Alcott would find her own success in ‘Little Women,' and in the novel's vividest character, Jo March, who is "very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, grey eyes, which were by turns fierce, funny or thoughtful."

At the Mount this summer (home of another 19th-century wide mind, Edith Wharton), writer, scholar and Alcott cousin Eve LaPlante will tell the untold story of Louisa May Alcott and her mother, Abigail.

Part of Jo comes from Abigail, as Jo also has a lot of Louisa in her, LaPlante said. Abigail's early letters to her parents remind her of Jo's declarations that she wants to do something terrific and brave. Abigail wrote to her brother when he was studying at Harvard and she was a teenager at home -- Abigail read John Locke and talked philosophy.

But Abigail longed for education, and for educated people to talk to.

She wanted "to have a voice and a place," LaPlante said.

Her daughter would find what she missed.

The Alcotts and Homer spoke out against the restrictions of their time.

19th century critics condemned Homer's technique -- as bold, brassy, unfinished -- Simpson said, but almost all then said, but this is America.

And though 19th-century publishers would force Louisa May Alcott to "sweeten" her writing, she shows her strength, as she does in Jo, and as her mother does in her private writings -- blunt, bright, "raw, right in the soil," LaPlante said.

With enough stubborn resistance, they found the time and the freedom to expand, as Homer did the summer he came to Gloucester to live with a lighthouse keeper.

"Here, his technique of watercolor transforms," Simpson said. "In earlier ones, he is drawing with color. Here they're really paintings -- sunsets, fireworks at night in fog, like a Whistler -- they're unlike anything anyone had done before."

Who Winslow Homer and Louisa May Alcott knew ...

As Boston flourished after the war, Homer spent evenings with Augustus Saint Gaudens and other writers and artists at the Tile Club, listening to string quartets and painting miniatures. He read and listened to naturalists seeking to reconcile creation with 19th-century science and studied the science of colors, the science of vision and oceanography, the Gulf Stream and ocean currents.

Louisa May Alcott was speaking to the Women's Club about her challenges as a successful writer.

The Alcotts' transcendentalist circle, past Hawthorne Emerson and Thoreau, held Lydia Maria Child, the novelist and journalist who wrote the first anti-slavery book in the country -- Margaret Fuller, journalist and critic, editor of the Dial, and the first woman in America to have a byline article on the front page of a newspaper -- and Elizabeth Peabody, a pioneer in education, who translated the first English version of a Buddhist scripture.

"The people we think of as great philosophers of the era are publishing in the monthly press," said Marc Simpson, curator of American art at the Clark Art Institute, "not in academic journals."

Homer, he added, "was a very smart man. Current. He traveled a great deal -- to the Caribbean, the Bahamas," to northern Canada and the Adirondacks, "with some of the most adroit and financially secure people in Boston and New York City -- academics and scholars from the full eastern seaboard."


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