Sunday, March 2, 2008

My Homer & Inness Paper

This is Winslow Homer's Veteran In a New Field painted in 1865, the year that saw the end of the Civil War in the United States. That same year, George Inness painted Peace and Plenty, shown below. Both paintings are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, until recently, hung near each other in the American Wing. On the surface, they each depict scenes of farmers working in the fields. Such scenes of everyday life, or "genre paintings" were popular during the 19th century, especially among city-dwelling art collectors who saw rural life as somehow idyllic and virtuous.

My assignment is to write a paper comparing and contrasting these two paintings. I haven't started it yet, but I have a lot of notes, and I'm probably going to get started on it as soon as I finish my blog today. I'm just trying to organize my thoughts and figure out how to say something meaningful.

What most people talk about when discussing these particular paintings is that they were reactions to the war and were each messages by the artist about how the nation had survived and now must get to work rebuilding, and that all would be well--the nation would now prosper because it had overcome a great challenge. But I think in my paper I will go into more detail about why the farm-scape was a metaphor for all that. Why the field, why the farmer? Why the harvest?

The explanation is multi-layered, which makes it all the more interesting. It so happens that during the mid-19th century there was an artistic movement in France, now called the Barbizon school. The Barbizon painters rebelled against academia and went out into the farms and fields near Paris and painted the landscape and the farmers. Not idealizing them in any way, their works showed the beauty of the common man. Many saw this as a reaction to the government of France, the industrialization, and the consequent surge in the population of Paris. The Barbizon painters were scoffed at in the beginning, their work reviled as ugly. But eventually, their message caught on and their work began to be collected, especially by wealthy Americans who thought that European paintings of any kind were better than what was to be found in America. Both George Inness and Winslow Homer would have seen these French paintings from the Barbizon school in New England homes as well as reproduced in print form. They understood what artists such as Millet and Courbet were trying to say about the farmer and the land. As if it were a language, both Inness and Homer used Barbizon-inspired imagery in their paintings to convey messages of peace, prosperity, hope, and mourning in reaction to the war.

The difference was in their style, and in their personalities. Winslow Homer, a reclusive and taciturn man, who trained as an illustrator of magazines, chose a solitary man as his symbol of reconstruction. For him, it was up to mankind to work as one and do the work necessary for the nation to carry on.

On the other hand, George Inness was a garrulous man, though frail in health, with a wife and children. His primary love was the landscape, which he painted very romantically. He was also deeply religious, and followed the teachings of Swedenborg, giving his paintings a spiritual depth. In Peace and Plenty, the setting sun seems more the subject of the painting than the farmers, as though implying that God is the one in charge, not man.

Of course, I have much more to say about these paintings than can fit here. I must write a 15-page paper, after all. I plan to go more in depth about the Barbizon influence, the land and farmer as a metaphor for virtue and peace, as well as explore the Biblical references in both these paintings. Hopefully it will all make sense! At least I have learned a lot in doing research, and have gained a greater appreciation for the work of both Inness and Homer.

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