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The Winslow Homer You Thought You Knew Proves More Versatile

National Gallery exhibit revels in familiar paintings, but Civil War pictures underscore a social-commentator role

Winslow Homer's work provides an irresistible pull into a powerful world where men are humbled by nature's beast, and struggle with their own.

Well known are his canvases that capture fishermen struggling against violent tides and young boys hiking along windswept plains. Perhaps less familiar are his chronicles of the Civil War and Reconstruction, when he painted the grim lives of soldiers at the front, and blacks who were later freed, but still enslaved by poverty.

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Never morose or preachy, Homer tells us about the economic and social changes in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With men in the Army, women took on new roles as schoolteachers, mill workers, and factory hands. Homer illustrates wholesome rural life just as precisely as he portrays high society.

The breadth of this great American artist's career - from his early engravings commissioned by Harper's Weekly to his later seascapes created during reclusive years - is on view in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art here. Opening this week, this enormous restrospective includes 225-plus pieces: oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints. A walk through the two floors and 13 rooms of exhibit space takes the viewer back a century to vivid and colorful Americana.

By the time war broke out between North and South, Homer was already critically acclaimed for his black-and-white sketches appearing in Harper's Weekly. By 1861, when he traveled to a bloody battlefield, his first-hand view of the war's brutality made a lasting impression on him.

It is fitting, then, that the show begins with Homer's earliest oil, "The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty" (1864). Perched in a tree, with one leg braced against a limb and the other dangling, a Union soldier aims his rifle at a Confederate enemy. Nearby canvases show officers warming their hands over a crackling fire, exhausted troops leaning against their tents, campsites exposed to enemy fire. Throughout the gallery filled with Homer's record of war, the imagery is so realistic, so fresh, you can almost smell a musket's newly spent gunpowder.

No matter how tattered his subjects, Homer gives them dignity. Their shoulders are broad, their posture straight. Mustaches and pipes and hats tip slightly to the side, lending a touch of refinement. Homer never loses his sense of composition, and while he avoided depicting blood and gore, his realism was always well-composed.

Homer himself cut an elegant figure. Born in 1836 Boston to Charles Savage Homer and Henrietta Maria Benson Homer - he a hardware merchant, she a watercolorist - young Winslow had parents who cared deeply about his art, and quickly noticed his promise.

But while solidly grounded in the middle class, the artist conveyed an intimate familiarity with the lives of farmhands as well as the idle rich, using his paints and brushes as instruments for social commentary.

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Typical of Homer's portrayal of rural serenity is "A Temperance Meeting (Noon Time) 1874." Here, a golden-haired milkmaid carrying a heavy bucket stops to serve a shepherd a ladle of milk. While the boy drinks, cows swish their tails in the sun-drenched pasture.

Homer's croquet scenes, for example, show gentlemen in straw hats and ladies in full hoop skirts on a wide expanse of green lawn. They are playing the most fashionable game of the day, but a game in which the sexes could compete on equal footing.

Homer painted few portraits. He did, however, create in 1872 a graceful picture of Helena de Kay, a literary and artistic beauty whom Homer deeply admired. He remained interested in her long after she married a prominent poet and literary editor.

The portrait, a side view of Helena on an elegant settee, shows a woman dressed in a long, ruffled black dress, hands together holding a book. Her chestnut hair is piled in a braided bun; her head is dropped, with her chin resting on her chest.

Although he never married, Homer clearly delighted in women. He documented part of the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. He captured on canvas women wringing out their bathing costumes along the water's edge in the famous "Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts, 1870." Later, when he went to an English fishing village to paint, Homer's watercolors captured women carrying baskets, mending nets, toting babies on their backs, and knitting socks. Their lips are ruby, their skin appears porcelain but for the flush in their cheeks.

BUT the vitality that emanates from these subjects is absent from Homer's portrayals of blacks during the postwar years.

In "The Cotton Pickers 1876," two young women move slowly through the field, stuffing cotton into a basket and a burlap sack. Their wary expressions convey distrust for the present and dark memories of the past.

"The withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1876 officially ended Reconstruction and soon returned much of its black population to a condition of virtual slavery," writes Nicolai Cikovsky, one of the two curators of the Homer restrospective and principal author of its catalog. If the Civil War had depressed Homer, the failure of Reconstruction left him disappointed with human nature.

In 1877 Homer painted "Sunday Morning in Virginia." Like his other renderings of former slaves, the picture is dark and the faces are sullen. His subject, a young woman reading from the Bible, is surrounded by three children and an older woman looking off into the distance. Homer's point that emancipation must give way to literacy seems a challenge in these old slave quarters.

While a great body of Homer's work involved subjects in water (canoes in rivers, trout leaping from streams, men sailing the swells, hunters in and around lakes), the artist spent the final years of his life painting dramatic seascapes that were simply too threatening for any man, animal, or vessel to enter.

It is during this period of isolation, Mr. Cikovsky says, that Homer drew on his past to showcase "nature in all its intensity, but defying any narrative."

*'Winslow Homer' continues at the National Gallery of Art through Jan. 28, 1996. It can be seen at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Feb. 21 to May 26, 1996, and at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art June 20 to Sept. 22, 1996.

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