Winslow Homer: American Passage An Interview With Biographer Bill Cross

Winslow Homer

The author of the biography Winslow Homer: American Passage, Bill Cross, is an independent scholar and a consultant to art and history museums. He is an author who tells stories of Americans whose works are known but whose lives are not. In 2019, he curated Homer at the Beach, A Marine Painter’s Journey, 1869-1880, for which he also wrote the catalogue, at the Cape Ann Museum.

The exhibition revealed the formation of Winslow Homer as a marine painter. For more than three decades he managed investment teams and investment portfolios, while also writing, researching and lecturing on art, faith and history. He is Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and believes that all people – children, women and men – need stories. A well-told tale of someone else’s life helps us make better sense of our own lives. His particular focus is on the lives of women and men who have shaped culture as their stories are also the stories of their times and their work, which frames their lives. These stories nudge us to ask: What do you see? How do you see? What do you not see? Why?

JE: How has your passion for placing art in context, unveiling beauty and narrative meaning embedded – and often hidden – in objects found expression in your work as an author and a consultant to art and history museums?

BC: First, as a general matter, a passion for doing something is necessary but not sufficient for doing it well.  In my own case, the meaning I make in my work is integral to my sense of purpose, and to my diligence in pursuing it.  But that in itself doesn’t make my work any good.

Second, I work not as a specialist but as a generalist.  What I write – whether an article of 800 words or a book of 560 pages – is for the general reader.  The text of the Homer biography (Winslow Homer: American Passage, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022) is for all readers.   Although the book and its footnotes contain various findings that may annoy, surprise, and even scandalize art historians, the book is not written for that narrow audience.  It is the story of a life that relates to all of us.  The book seeks to explain what forces shaped this man whose head, heart and hand stir so greatly many Americans – and now Britons.  To the greatest extent possible, the biography addresses this question: What made Winslow Homer tick?

Third and last, the stories I tell are of people whose names may be familiar but who generally did not wish their lives to be known.  That to me makes them even more interesting!  Everyone has a story, waiting to be understood.  In making sense of the lives of women and men we can also make better sense of their work, and then reflect on two intertwined strands: of makers and of what they made.

Although I spend essentially all my time now as an author and speaker, I have worked as a consultant to museums both on the creative side and on the business side, and in the investment business.  That work, like my writing and speaking, has been guided by a respect for those whom I serve.  Whether it’s helping write a business plan for a museum or curating an exhibition, my goal is to bring to new light objects (and collections of objects) that are under-appreciated.  I realize that goal through story-telling – and make no mistake, an investment thesis, a successful business plan and an effective exhibition are all stories every bit as much as is a good biography.  They are just in a different format.

JE: Having curated Homer at the Beach and written Winslow Homer: American Passage, you clearly have a great love for this quintessential American artist. How did your interest in Homer begin and develop?

BC: Back to my being a generalist, I did not set out to curate the 2019 exhibition.  Only through a series of unexpected events (with hindsight, providential events) did I do so.  The opportunity to write Homer’s biography arose after I’d curated that exhibition.  I realized to my surprise that I had the skill set and experience to be the author of a Homer biography.  That was when I believed that COVID would be over in a few months; it didn’t quite turn out that way.  But with great teamwork, my publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux and I got the book done, and on time.

All of which is to say that I can’t claim an attachment to Homer that overshadows my interest in all other subjects.  In fact, I’m way too interested in way too many things.  But that comes with the territory as a generalist.

Having said that, though, I grew up in Manhattan and spent countless hours as a boy alone in the then often empty (!) galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, eyeball to eyeball with masterpieces of all kinds: European, American, Chinese, Indian, Greek, Roman, you name it.  I learned an early and valuable lesson: long looking pays off.   It is the complement to Pascal’s deduction: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  If I may be so bold: Once we are able to sit quietly in a room with open eyes, all sorts of good things can happen.  Opening my eyes on Homer’s life and work has deeply enriched my life.  His pictures, like his life, are persuasive case studies for long looking.

JE: Homer forged American identity visually, in art and illustration, living his life on the front lines of history, yet few facts are known of his life and his story has remained largely untold. Why was that the case and how did Homer contribute to that situation?

BC: I think that Homer and his dealers are the primary culprits.  They believed that inventing a myth and hiding the true facts of the man helped sell his art.  Given how captivating that art is, a great many people have taken the bait and swallowed whole the line that Homer, his family and others have fed them.  The myth is multifaceted but in simplest form projects a Homer who lived in Protean isolation, bereft of companions and artistic influence (especially from Europe) and painted as an eyewitness to what by happenstance passed before his eyes.  So, we have tended to place Homer in a vaunted vacuum, less integrated than he really was in his social, historical and economic context.

Of course, there is a long tradition of artists and their dealers cultivating, fertilizing, and pruning artistic reputations.  The degree to which Homer attended to that activity himself is especially visible in the scrapbook he kept.  It includes many dozens of reviews of exhibitions in which his work – and the work of his peers – appeared both in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Those clippings and many others suggest that he and his principal dealers carefully propagated Homer’s reputation as a unique genius.  Reviewers deployed words and phrases such as “virile” and “truly American” and “the Walt Whitman of art” to convey the identity that Homer and his gallerists sought to project.  In doing so, they placed the art first, and not the man.  Homer’s reserved character led to many contemporaries concluding incorrectly that he was a misanthrope.  That too was good for selling pictures, especially when he established a legal residency in Maine for the last 27 years of his life.  The idea that this painter of fierce weather blasting the rocky coast actually lived on that coast fanned the flames of his reputation as an eccentric genius whose work warranted high prices.

JE: In his childhood Homer was exposed to national tensions regarding the abolition of slavery.  Prior to his birth and through his infancy, for example, his parents attended different churches: one abolitionist, the other opposed. How do you think this experience of the two Bostons – Conscience Whigs and Cotton Whigs — informed Homer’s later work and his own approaches to the social and religious issues of his time?

BC: I consider Homer’s childhood and family circumstances fundamental to his sense of purpose, and to his mature work.  Growing up in a mercantile family closely involved with trade between Boston and the states such as Alabama that depended on slave labor meant that he heard plenty at home, at church and among family friends about slavery as a “necessary evil.”  Yet he also heard regularly from his mother’s father, and his aunt, married to an Abolitionist clergyman, about the urgency of the anti-slavery movement and its ultimate objective: “the freedom of all mankind” (in the immortal words of Frederick Douglass).   How did he resolve those dissonances – as a child and as a man?

After Winslow Homer (1836-1910): Expulsion of Negroes and Abolitionists from Tremont Temple, Boston, Massachusetts, on December 3, 1860; Wood engraving on newsprint, published in Harper’s Weekly, issue of December 15, 1860; 7 x 9 1⁄4 in.; Cleveland Museum of Art, 1942.1464.
After Winslow Homer (1836-1910): Expulsion of Negroes and Abolitionists from Tremont Temple, Boston, Massachusetts, on December 3, 1860; Wood engraving on newsprint, published in Harper’s Weekly, issue of December 15, 1860; 7 x 9 1⁄4 in.; Cleveland Museum of Art, 1942.1464.

One way was to develop an early instinct for assessment of the circumstances in which he found himself – if only for self-protection.  He was cautious about showing his hand.  Homer embedded in his art the ambiguity with which he lived, and which was part of the warp and woof of his everyday life.  He laid out the facts of that life’s reality in the form of genre scenes, and then seascapes and landscapes, which appeared matter-of-fact but were actually highly composed.

He also developed a particular empathy for the underdog.  Recalling his own childhood of genteel poverty, Homer identified with the boy looking out to sea for his absent father (Dad’s Coming, 1873), with the deer on the brink of death (Deer Drinking, 1892), with the fisherman who might well not find his way through the fog back to his mother schooner (The Fog Warning, 1885), and with the once-enslaved Black matriarch who peers into a pendant picture depicting a white matriarch (A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876). But his empathy never trumps his ambiguity.  He wants the viewer to inhabit his works and complete the stories which, in them, Homer begins.

JE: In what ways do you think the works that reflect Homer’s interest in the pressing issues of his time – conflict, race, and the relationship between humankind and the environment – remain relevant for us today?

BC: The issues of Homer’s time are highly relevant today, in part because they are so thoroughly unresolved.  In particular, the failure of 19th century American leaders to effectuate a truly equal society through the federal Reconstruction project haunts all Americans in the 21st century.  As one example, the conditions in which people of colour live today can be remarkably different depending in which of the 50 American states they dwell.  Homer’s interest in these inequities was far ahead of his time.

He also had a keen eye for the role of women in American society.  While we have made many strides in the equality of the sexes, this also remains an unfinished project.  Women couldn’t vote in Homer’s lifetime, but of course he was thoroughly aware of campaigns to change that barrier.  He knew and liked many strong women.  A couple of the collectors who purchased his work were social activists, but I’ve come across no evidence that any of the women he counted as friends fitted that description.

Homer was no latent environmental activist, but his art, his correspondence, and his private library with its annotations all testify to his robust natural theology.  According to this system of belief, natural phenomena, from the rhythms of the tide and moon to ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, express the delicate balance with which God has constructed his creation.  Humankind’s destiny is to harmonize in humility and gratitude with all else God has made, and thereby to live fully into the glory of God.  This is quite different from a doctrine of human hegemony over the environment, but it is also several steps short of predicting climate change.

JE: The exhibition you curated in 2019, Homer at the Beach: A Marine Painter’s Journey 1869-1880, revealed Homer’s formation as a marine painter, a focus that has then also featured strongly in the retrospectives mounted more recently by the Met in New York and the National Gallery London. What have these exhibitions added to our developing understanding of Homer and his work?

BC: The exhibition I curated in 2019 was far more modest than the one now hosted by the National Gallery, or than the even larger exhibition that the Metropolitan Museum hosted this past spring and summer.  But all three exhibitions have sought to place Homer’s art in the context of his times.  Because the 2019 exhibition addressed just eleven years of Homer’s art, and intentionally ended when he was 44, it was able to look especially closely at his process of becoming a marine artist.  And it could ignore all sort of other interesting things he was doing that had nothing to do with the sea!  Other important aspects of that period included his Reconstruction works, his engagement with farm life, and his first visits to the Adirondacks.

The National Gallery’s exhibition is a marvelous introduction to Homer’s work for Britons who are generally unfamiliar with it.  The gallery has accomplished the nearly impossible: to create in an exhibition of just 50 works (out of about 1,700 that Homer made) a broad and persuasive retrospective.  Of course, some important works could not travel to London, but the show displays excellent balance across Homer’s oeuvre and is superbly lit and hung in intimate spaces designed well to warm viewers’ hearts and delight their minds.

Winslow Homer (1836-1910): The Gulf Stream, 1899, reworked by 1906
Winslow Homer (1836-1910): The Gulf Stream, 1899, reworked by 1906 Photo: Artlyst

The Metropolitan’s exhibition was both a kind of retrospective and a deep dive into Homer’s tropical works, in which the Met’s own holdings are especially strong.  The curators at the museum showed their passion for the work Homer made on and about the Bahamas, Cuba, Florida, and Bermuda with a profusion of watercolours and his two tropical oils.  The show also conveyed well the protracted process through which he developed his pictorial ideas.  The Gulf Stream, for example, began with a sketch he made 21 years before he finally laid down his paintbrush and considered the canvas complete.  Now that is a long process!   And the Met deployed its capacious galleries to great effect, creating a visitor experience which kept The Gulf Stream ever-present in the eyes and minds of the viewers.  In the hands of the Met team, that masterpiece of Western art gleamed also as an icon of tension, borne of conflict.  Its lone figure, both American and Black, remains in the hearts of all those viewers as an Everyman who is their kin.  To me, Homer’s model is an inspiration not only of tension but of hope, and I think many viewers departed from this extraordinary exhibition with a similarly multivalent understanding of the picture and its place in American and world culture.

JE: How did Homer’s “search for balance, order, and beauty amid the conflicts he confronted,” provide him with his ability to capture both the experiences of “ordinary people” and the “powerful forces of nature”?

BC: As I discuss in the biography, what made Homer tick had much to do with his childhood and young adulthood.  These periods included his direct experience of poverty, of military conflict, and of exposure to two uncles, neighbors, and others whose economic circumstances were far more solid than Homer’s own.  That childhood dissonance engendered his empathy.  I think it also led to his seeking and finding in nature a kind of refuge from the rough-and-tough world of commerce – which was rather bruising in those days.  He sought an alternate setting in which God’s hand is sovereign, and humanity may discover its place, and its peace.

JE: What did his stay in Cullercoats, a town on the North East coast of England, add to his developing practice?

BC: Homer spent just over 19 months in England in 1881 and 1882.  He was also more briefly in England in late 1866 and early 1867.  The documentation of the first period is non-existent, and of the second period primarily in the form of works of art he created, most of them watercolours.  They suggest that England emboldened Homer to make substantially larger and more complex watercolours than he had made previously – and to command substantially higher prices for them.  His palette darkened in England and his focus shifted to the figures of women and children who personify virtues he admired, including resilience, faith, perseverance, and hope.  While only one of these works is inspired by London, we ought not assume that Homer spent all 19 months in Cullercoats, just north of the Tyne.  His work includes clear evidence that he journeyed to Flamborough Head in Bridlington, for example, which is 80 miles south of the Tyneside cottage in which he spent most of that longer English stay.  We ought also to recall that he was very curious about the world around him, including the art world.  It is inconceivable that he would have neglected the opportunity to look long at the two summer exhibitions the Royal Academy mounted while he was in England.  In fact, he contributed a major oil painting to the second of these exhibitions (Hark! The Lark), and called it “the most important picture I ever painted, and the very best one.”  Similarly, Homer would have made good use of the occasions he had to examine closely Turner’s oils and watercolours.  Like us today, he would have found Turner’s work an inspiring expression of one painter’s mastery, and of the forces of nature that Turner depicted.

JE: You have written that “the dazzling watercolors Winslow Homer made in the Adirondacks are among his greatest accomplishments” and that, “through them, we glimpse a vision of nature as a glorious order – and an ordered glory – within which humankind can flourish.” How do you think Homer reveals the flourishing of humanity within the ordered glory of nature in these watercolours? How does this relate to the unity of harmonies uttered by one intelligence about which you spoke in a recent talk for the Courtauld Gallery?

BC: These Adirondack works – most of them watercolours – are high points in the career of this man best known for his marine paintings – despite the fact that they contain not a drop of salt water!  I think that through them Homer unveils a possibility for the flourishing not only of humankind, but of all creation.  In many of these works man’s presence is implied, not directly visible.  But through them viewers are drawn into the rhythms of the seasons and the cycles of life.  In Hound and Hunter, for example, he presents us with an Everyman whose predicament anticipates in some ways the lone figure in The Gulf Stream.  In other pictures, Homer’s young Adirondack model, Michael Francis Flynn, often appears proud – even callous.  But on this canvas, he is vulnerable, seeking to preserve a precarious balance whereby he can remain in the boat while transporting the body of the dead deer to an unseen shore.  The hound’s excitability and indifference to the young man’s intentions injects a narrative suspense.   In The Gulf Stream the stakes are higher than in this picture, but both oils feature a lone heroic male wrestling with life and death – his own and that of other creatures.  Each man is living at the heart of “a balance wheel.”

Winslow Homer (1836-1910): Hound and Hunter, 1892, Oil on canvas, 28 1⁄4 x 48 1/8 in., National Gallery of Art, 1947
Winslow Homer (1836-1910): Hound and Hunter, 1892, Oil on canvas, 28 1⁄4 x 48 1/8 in., National Gallery of Art, 1947 Photo Artlyst

The phrase comes from oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury; “a balance wheel” was what he called the natural phenomenon of the Gulf Stream.  When wrote that the current itself was the subject of his painting, he referred specifically to Maury, and therefore to this concept. Maury further explained that the Gulf Stream is “an expression of One Thought, a unity with harmonies which One Intelligence, and One Intelligence alone, could utter.”  The capitalizations are Maury’s and reflect his deeply rooted natural theology.  Homer’s library and its annotations, his correspondence and his art suggest that he shared that belief system, which envisions a glorious order of all creation.  It also implies an important role for women and men, made in God’s image, as creators themselves.  If Homer were among us today, I think he would call upon us to create works whose ordered glory reflect the glorious order of God’s creation.  Homer’s own work suggests that he found that calling himself.  With the permission of University of Iowa professor Robert Bork, I include below one of Homer’s watercolours annotated by Dr. Bork.  The composition expresses Homer’s deep interest in the order he witnessed at the height of the autumnal hunting season.   It also expresses the painter’s profound respect for the geometric discipline he learned in his youth (both as an illustrator and as a painter) and used in the composition of his pictures throughout his career.  The subject of Homer’s geometry has drawn far less attention than, for example, his colour harmonies – but I consider it no less important.

Winslow Homer On the Trail 1889 geometric mapping by-Professor Robert Bork University of Iowa

JE: You write a weekly column on art and the gospel for fellow parishioners at your local church. How did that column come into being, what does it offer to parishioners and how would you characterise the response from those who read it?

BC: I’ve been writing these very short essays every week now for more than 12 years.  The priest at our parish suggested that it would be a ministry well-suited to me.  He was right!  The essays all relate to an individual drawing or print that I’ve chosen to express visually a key passage of Scripture to be read that Sunday.  Most of these hundreds of works on paper relate to Gospel readings that follow the Revised Common Lectionary.  My fellow parishioners often email or text me days after reading my notes to say how much the art itself and my commentaries have meant to them – and to their children.  I must be doing something right.  I draw disproportionately from certain draftsmen – Rembrandt and Durer, of course, but also Millais, the 20th century pastor-poet Henri Lindegaard, and the Nazarene Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld.  Perhaps one day I will compile them into a single volume as Schnorr himself did.

JE: Exploring the shape of flourishing life through faith and culture has been an interest and involvement for many years. How has this interest informed your curation and writing?

BC: The Yale Center for Faith and Culture is devoted to human flourishing; I’m honored to serve on its Advisory Board.  That tenure has deepened my understanding of and respect for the work of the Center and its Director Miroslav Volf.  Prior to following the Center’s activities closely, I think I understood little of the underpinnings of a flourishing life.  Now, I view biography as a process by which we writers and readers make sense of the arc of a life, one life at a time.  Each arc is the unique pursuit of a call to flourish.  At least that is how I have come to understand my own calling as a biographer.

Likewise, one might consider an exhibition’s presentation of objects through the prism of this underlying question: What does it mean to flourish?  Might an assemblage of particular objects, organized and annotated in a particular way, offer viewers an opportunity – an innate urgency, even – to make their own meaning in response to the immersion experience that exhibition offers?  The curator only sets the table.  The meal is for the guest.  In this biography, as in the Homer at the Beach exhibition, I have hoped to nourish, provoke, and open questions.  There is always more to learn.  There are always new paths within which to walk into the flourishing forest.

JE: What do you hope Winslow Homer: American Passage will add to the existing literature on Homer?

BC: Homer’s work is the subject of many hundreds of scholarly articles, books, and museum exhibitions with voluminous catalogues.  By contrast, Homer the man has been the subject of just three biographies, dating from 1911, 1944 and 2002.  Each was written by an art historian.  Although the most recent of these three books analyzed Homer’s letters, none of three had access to the myriad resources which have been digitized over the last two decades.  Nor did any of them have access to the mature fruit of the 80-year project of assembling the catalogue raisonné of Homer’s work.  That Herculean project was completed only in 2014; not until the fall of 2021 did the archives behind it become accessible.  So, most of the archival materials on which I relied were unavailable, or not easily available, to previous biographers.

Also, by definition, a biographer focuses on his or her human subject.  By contrast, art historians focus on works of art.  My book is the story of a life, examined through the lens of documentary evidence.  Among the myriad documents are works of art.  Some art historians might object to my treating works of art as documents the same way that one might treat letters or newspaper clippings.  But many of those works illuminated radiantly the man behind them.  I’ve tried not to use the man to stitch together a story of the art, but to do the reverse.  As I’ve told the story of this one man’s life through his art and context, I hope that I’ve offered fresh light on our lives today to many women and men of our own time, in the U.S., Britain and beyond.

Winslow Homer: Biographer Bill Cross Interviewed By Revd Jonathan Evens Top Photo Artlyst 2022

Winslow Homer: Force of Nature, National Gallery, London Until 8 January 2023

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