A peek under the paint of Homer's work
You can almost taste the salt spray. It is a sea-air image of wonderful buoyancy, exhilaration, and compelling forward movement. It also may have been intended as a symbol of national promise.
Winslow Homer's abidingly popular painting was first exhibited in 1876 in New York, the same year that the American Centennial was being celebrated in the form of a fair in Philadelphia. Homer's title was "A Fair Wind." "Breezing Up" was added later. It was being used by 1879, evidently with the artist's approval.
Contrary to its appearance of immediate realization in oil paint, this painting took the artist some two or three years to complete. Art history quite often records paintings that look remarkably spontaneous but, in reality, took the painter a long time to finish - time in which struggles, doubts, and changes of mind occurred. Cézanne was notoriously, demandingly, slow.
When De Kooning was painting his iconic "Woman I," according to his biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, he paced the floor of his studio "studying the image for long periods and then striding purposely forward with the brush, searching for the startlingly fresh image that would have the exclamatory 'of course' of an image painted in one quick surge of inspiration."
Matisse, whose works might seem, to viewers, to have arisen straight out of his head with an instantaneous simplicity, sometimes went through lengthy periods of anguish. When he painted his wife's portrait in 1913, they had to undergo more than 100 sittings.
Matisse's friend Marcel Sembat indicates the difficulties when he recorded in his diary a Saturday visit with Matisse during this time: "Crazy! weeping! By night he recites the Lord's Prayer! By day he quarrels with his wife!" Yet the final portrait is peculiarly tranquil.
Homer's painting likewise had to look unlabored, or the very spirit of the thing would have been compromised. Yet both infrared reflectogram investigation, and even to a degree the naked eye, show how the artist reconsidered several elements of the picture. At one stage, there had been two other boats in full sail in the distance. In the end, there was only one.
There also had been five rather than four figures in the foreground catboat. Homer eliminated the boy on the prow and replaced him with an anchor. The tiller and rudder had their position altered, and instead of the older man holding both sheet and tiller, the boy at stern steers the rudder.
The original sketch from which "Breezing Up" derives is a masterly watercolor, a medium Homer had only recently taken up on his first visit to Gloucester, Mass. (Note the name of the boat.)
There are fascinating comparisons to be made between this quick study and the final oil painting. The horizon extends farther to the right in the final painting. Some commentators have seen this as giving it a new spatial balance influenced by Japanese art.
The scudding cloudscape in the oil is much more prominent than the light sky in the watercolor. The central boy, gazing into space, has his bare feet on a thwart in the watercolor. In the oil, there is no thwart - just a floundering catch. A large shadow is cast in the concavity of the sail, adding thrust and definition that's absent in the sketch.
An enthusiastic review of the picture appeared in the New York Sun on April 30, 1876, and it has been quoted in commentaries about the work ever since.
The writer referred admiringly to the figure of "The boatman's barefoot boy ... whose bright eye evidently sees such enormous horizons as he looks through the curl of spray...." But subsequent writers have taken this boy to be the one nearest to the viewer when it plainly must be the one in the middle. The nearest boy is indeed barefoot, too. And he also gazes at the horizon. But his head is turned away, and while his eye may well be "bright," this is speculation rather than observation because we can't actually see it.
However, the whole painting is bright, indeed - zestful and invigorating.
• This painting is one of more than 50 by Homer in a special exhibition of his works from the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. It continues there until Feb. 20.