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October 16, 2012

It’s been a great fall for art-historical conversations in Maine. A month ago, as recorded on this blog, some 40 art historians and others gathered at Saco City Hall for a day of conversation about the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress and the moving panorama tradition. A breakout session that day was a prelude to a meeting of the Maine Historians of American Art at the Portland Museum of Art the next week. And then on Sunday, October 14, many of the same individuals—plus what looked like at least 100 others—met at the PMA once again for an afternoon dedicated to discussing Winslow Homer’s late seascapes, the subject of the current exhibition at the PMA.

Winslow Homer, Weatherbeaten, Portland Museum of Art

All the presentations—by Karen Sherry, Wanda Corn, and Marc Simpson—were fantastic, but it was something Marc Simpson said that got me thinking specifically about panoramas. Homer’s late seascapes were, for the most part, painted at his studio on Prouts Neck, Maine, and were the result of direct observation of the surf crashing on the rocks right there in his front yard. The paintings were something of a departure for Homer, whose previous work had almost invariably included prominent human figures, and both he and his dealers knew it. There was, apparently—as Simpson demonstrated—a lot of conversation about how to guide the viewing experience of these works so that they would be seen and comprehended in the right way. Letters between Homer and his dealer, M. Knoedler & Co., show that Homer wanted his paintings viewed at a distance in order to heighten the illusion that they created.

I’m paraphrasing, but what I remember is that Homer argued that since he was 60 feet away from the breakers when he painted them, the viewer should be 60 feet away from the painting when viewing the paintings. This was impossible, of course—Knoedler’s gallery wasn’t anywhere near big enough to engender such a viewing experience—but still, Homer hyperbolized effectively enough so that distance was enforced by hanging the paintings relatively high and putting ropes in front of them, preventing people from putting their noses to the canvas in the way that Homer so disparaged.  In fact, in one of his letters he added a cartoon of a man doing exactly that, adding the inscription, “He can’t see it.”

What’s so fascinating about this, to me, is that it stresses how much those late seascapes—even though they are often lauded as gateways to modernism, and even though many of them were, in fact, painted in the early years of the 20th century—are resolutely 19th-century paintings.  As the panelists observed on Sunday, that’s such a 19th-century approach to creating and displaying art: to see it as a window to the world and an illusion that is made more or less effective through tricks of display. Homer’s insistence that his seascapes can only be truly “seen” from a distance reminds me of the way earlier American artists like Frederic Edwin Church chose to display their paintings as stand-alone attractions, housed in ornate frames like theater prosceniums, underscoring the fact that the painting was meant to transport you to another place or time, to create the illusion of being someplace else.  Homer’s paintings were being displayed in midtown Manhattan galleries, but he wanted the viewers to at least momentarily feel as though they were on the piazza of his studio in coastal Maine.

File:Church Heart of the Andes exhibited.jpg

Heart of the Andes, displayedin 1864

The theater-like presentation of works like Church’s Heart of the Andes was very influenced by the panorama tradition, particularly the moving panorama tradition, in which curtains, prosceniums, dramatic lighting, and other theatrical conventions were used to create an illusion of place. As we know, Church had contributed to The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress just a few years before Heart of the Andes was completed, so he had more than a passing familiarity with the visual tricks of moving panoramas.  What’s interesting here, though, is the tantalizing idea that Homer might have known and employed some of those tricks as well, and that the panoramic heritage in landscape painting, to some degree, may have endured right up through Homer. What remains to be explored is the degree to which Homer intended it to be so.

Born in 1836 and a working man of the world well before the Civil War, Homer surely would have had the chance to see moving panoramas in Boston and New York. He also knew Church’s work and that of others done in the same vein—the kind of “Hudson River School” painting that is so often pointed out as the inheritor of the panorama tradition.  But until the 1880s, when he begins to create his pure seascapes, Homer’s work has little to do with the vast, distant views associated with both panoramas and Hudson River School painting. It’s almost as if the idea lay dormant in him until his Prouts Neck era.  Of course, the Prouts Neck paintings don’t look anything like Church, either (though it’s interesting to point out that their surging waves have some resonance with maritime moving panoramas).  Homer created something entirely new with his Prouts Neck paintings, and I don’t mean to diminish that by calling them 19th-century paintings.  Still, it’s fascinating to learn more about how Homer himself “saw” the works and wanted others to see them. As modern as they may appear, Homer himself always intended these paintings to be seen in a way that has more to do with the 19th century’s tradition of panoramas and “great paintings”—an orchestrated, guided, transportive illusion—than the modernist’s reductive examination of paint on canvas.

I’ll leave it to the Homer scholars to dig through Homer’s correspondence to find out which panoramas, if any, he saw, and what he thought about them, particularly in relation to his own work.  But thanks to Sunday’s presentation, the idea is there, someone’s just got to dress it up and put it on the road. We all agreed that not nearly enough has been written about Homer’s late seascapes; this could be an interesting idea for someone to start to unroll.

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