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Winslow Homer and the camera at Brandywine: Less than meets the eye

Brandywine River Museum exhibit looks at how one of the greatest American artists interacted with one of the coolest gadgets of his time.

Detail from Winslow Homer's "Eight Bells," now on exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum.
Detail from Winslow Homer's "Eight Bells," now on exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum.Read moreAddison Gallery of American Art / Art Resource

"Winslow Homer: Photography and the Art of Painting" sounds as though it ought to be a very important exhibition.

Homer, after all, was one of the greatest of all American painters, and his career coincided with important technical and artistic progress in the field of photography. The camera changed the way people saw the world and the way artists worked throughout the 19th century. We know that great painters of the time, such as Thomas Eakins here and Edgar Degas in France, worked seriously in photography.

The existence of this exhibition, organized by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and now on display at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, seems to suggest there may be a similar story to tell about this great American realist, drawn in part from the college's substantial holdings of the Maine artist.

"Photography and the Art of Painting" does show Homer using Mathew Brady's Civil War photos as a basis for the magazine illustrations with which he supported himself early in his career. It includes a wooden, clearly failed portrait that Homer painted from a photograph.

There is a photo Homer took of rocks near his home at Prout's Neck, Maine, during calm seas. The same rocks show up in some of his best-known paintings,  buffeted by the surf of a stormy Atlantic.

There are even photographs of a couple of Homer paintings, mounted, signed, and painted upon by the artist, who was hoping they would be a new source of income for him. They weren't.

And like everyone else, Homer posed for photographs, several of which are here.

What's missing is anything to convince the viewer that Homer's vision was shaped in any significant way by photography, or that Homer had any influence on photography as either a documentary or artistic medium. Admittedly, because it is a Homer show, there are some good pictures. But its subject feels like an excuse to mount a mostly second-tier selection of Homers.

There is a story that the show would like to tell. It concerns Homer's decision in 1881 to move to England for more than a year, where he lived in a fishing village near the mouth of the River Tyne on the North Sea. While he was in England, he bought two cameras and experimented with taking pictures.

When he returned from England, his style was different. He was less of a storyteller and more concerned with capturing specific, often tumultuous moments. His paintings appear more closely cropped and narrowly focused.

Actually, all of this is more or less true. There's no evidence, though, to link the changes in Homer's paintings to his practice of photography.

The two cameras he acquired in England are in the show. One, a tiny wooden box, was among the most portable of its time. But there are no photos extant taken with it.

Indeed, a catalog essay by Frank H. Goodyear, co-director of the Bowdoin museum, suggests Homer never succeeded in making it work. That makes him a precursor of those of us who, post-Cyber Monday, are struggling with new devices we don't understand. But it does not make a strong case for the importance of photography in his art.

There is one small photograph taken with the other camera, and a quantity of snapshots, taken by unknown Homer family members and others, at the oceanfront compound where he lived with his father and brother's family. The camera used was one of the first Kodaks that turned photography into a mass hobby. Homer's equipment was all made for amateurs.

In order to make its admittedly tentative argument, the show stretches the definition of a camera to include telescopes, spyglasses, and any device with a lens. In the 1886 painting Eight Bells, two men in rain gear — they actually look like the same man — are on the deck of a boat in rough seas. One looks through a sextant to get a bearing. The other studies the device itself.

Many visitors will be happy to see this characteristically Homerish painting on display. But the show asks us to see the painting as Homer's meditation on using an instrument to help you see — as one does with a camera. This seems unlikely.

Homer's early career in magazine illustration before and during the Civil War was based on the limitations of photography. At the time, photographs could not be enlarged and reproduced easily. Magazines often had arrangements with photo studios such as Brady's to provide photographs to be used as the basis for drawings that would later be sent to engravers to make reproducible images.

One of the first items in the exhibition is a photograph attributed to Alexander Gardner of Lincoln's first inauguration in 1861. Next to it is the illustration Homer made of the event, possibly by referring to this photograph.

Though Gardner seems to be looking at the Capitol from the left and Homer from the right, the images appear similar, at least until you look at the crowd. In the photograph, the spectators are tiny and without individuality, and the scene is flat. Homer's spectators are probably too large, given the distance from which we are looking. Homer's scale is off, but his emotional tone is right. He wanted the readers of Harper's Weekly to feel they were part of that crowd.

The message I drew from the show is that Homer's ambitions for photography — his own and others — were quite low. He took his unwieldy camera to the shore to document the rocks on a calm day. But for the scenes he liked to paint, with threatening clouds, high winds, the roar of the waves, salty splashes, and white foam, he trusted his own close observation. He built a studio with a second-floor balcony so he could look over and down at the ocean as it hit the shore.

These breakers are the ones we remember, the ones that evoke the intensity of lived experience. They are more than real. They are art and absolutely convincing.