Winslow Homer: The Obtuse Bard
Part I -- Fully Understood?

copyright 1990 Peter W. Bueschen

Table of Contents



Hunt's Studio
George Berkeley and Pragmatism
Karl Bodmer
William James
Deathbed letter to Gustav Kobbe


On Copying Nature
On the Imagination of the Artist
The Viewer's Active Role when Looking at Art




John W. Beatty (1851-1924), Director of Fine Arts at Carnegie Institute visited Winslow Homer (1836-1910) at Prout's Neck, Maine in 1903. Among Beatty's recollections are these,

His reputation at that time among the painters of the world was at its height. His masterly Summer Night had been purchased by the Luxembourg Gallery. To the gold medal awarded by the Carnegie Institute had been added many other honors. No name in modern art stood higher or was spoken in the studios of America with deeper and more sincere regard. Moreover, he was at that time producing some of his most powerful works.

Nevertheless, the feeling that he had not been understood, that it was not worth-while, that the average man had little comprehension of art, seemed to be uppermost in his mind at that time. The Luxembourg picture went "kicking about" the country for a good while, he said, before it was finally sent to France and purchased. These thoughts seemed to come to him frequently, but he was adverse to discussing this phase of his experience except as it incidentally came into the conversation. note 1

Homer also wrote to Beatty,

"What is the use? The people are too stupid. They do not understand."note2


The last letter Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) is known to have sent was dated July 15, 1911, just 17 days before he died. Dictated to his wife because he was too sick to write, the letter was a response to a letter from an old friend, James Edward Kelly (1855-1933). Their mutual friend, Winslow Homer (1836-1910), had died the previous September. Abbey wrote to Kelly,

I remember how much Winslow Homer used to help you, and I wish that some time some of us, who knew so much more about him than ignoramuses do who have written about him, could write down something that would really do him justice, for he was a very great and single-minded man.

Both Abbey and Kelly had begun their careers at Harper's in the early 1870's, where Homer had regularly contributed illustrations to Harper's Weekly from the first year of its publication in 1857 until 1875. Kelly later wrote memoirs and did include some memories of Homer. For example, he recalled the time Homer gave him some drawing instructions,

He pointed to a pile of shoes in one corner; picking some of them up, he placed them on a table, saying, "You should practice drawing old shoes and getting their character", pointing out to me the different character and expressions in the various types of well-worn shoes." During the intervals of his talk, if anything was out of order, he would shift it into its place; a thread, or piece of paper on the floor, would bring him to a standstill until he could pick it up.

He then said, "Did you ever practice drawing high hats? You should practice drawing high hats;" and taking out his own, he placed it on a table, saying "There is a great deal of drawing in a high hat, to get not only its curves, but its delicate variations in the outline which gives it style. It is not merely making a `stove pipe', but to show its quality." He then placed it on its side, and foreshortening it to show part of the inside, he pointed out the beauty and grace of the complicated lines, and the precision required to give the proper effect. He added, "They are generally badly drawn; if you can draw a high hat correctly, you can draw anything."note3

Kelly also prepared material for Edward V. Lucas, who wrote a biography of Abbey. Lucas wrote,

On leaving the Union Square studio, Abbey and Kelly moved to the studio on the third floor of the old University Building in Washington Square, since demolished. "It extended," writes Mr. Kelly, "from the Square to Waverly Place, and was built of grey granite, with towers and castellated roof. In it Professor Morse had developed the telegraph; and, in many cases, the wires on which he had experimented remained in position. There, too, Professor Draper had made his first experiments in photography, and had taken the first portrait in America. Old tin signs were nailed on the walls, indicating where in the past had lived men of national fame, in art and literature, such as Eastman Johnson, etc. I remember Winslow Homer's sign still remained, although he had removed to the Studio Building in 10th Street..."note4

Lucas quotes Kelly regarding a review which compared Abbey with Homer,

"We got the morning's papers, and began to read the criticisms. All sounded his [Abbey's] praises. This seemed to rouse him. Notice after notice was read; each proclaimed him the success of the year. He began to laugh like a boy, the happy boy he was. He would read an article, or I would read one, he would then jump up, begin to sing, or dance a walk-around. Some of the papers compared him with Winslow Homer, to Homer's disadvantage. At this he looked serious, then annoyed, `I don't like that. I don't like that,' he said, and began to pace the room impatiently. Then putting on his hat he started round to Homer's. On his return he told me, `Homer seemed cut up over the article, and said, "All these years they have been calling me a rising young artist, and now in one day they call me an old fossil." ' Shortly after Homer called at the studio and went over Abbey's works with great interest."note5

Kelly wrote in his memoirs,

Abbey always expressed the highest admiration for Homer, and seemed elated over his visit to our studio in the University building. He was also impressed by Homer's attention to me that day. He used to meet Homer at exhibitions and receptions; but never-- to my knowledge -- visited his studio after that visit which Homer returned. One morning Abbey said, "Didn't Homer tell you he would teach you to paint?"

I said, "Yes." Then Abbey made me a present of a fine box of oil colors, and told me to go down and remind Homer of his promise. So I started down and knocked at Homer's door; he opened it partly, then recognizing me, smiled and said, "How do you do?" I then blurted out, "Mr. Homer, you said whenever I wanted to learn to paint, I was to come to you." "Yes," he said, still smiling but still holding the door knob. "Well, I've come." "Oh, you have," he said with a hearty laugh; "Walk in!"

Then looking me over in his arch way, he asked, "When do you want to begin?" "Oh, any time --now," I replied. "Oh, you do; well let's get to work," he continued; and looking around, picked out a small stretcher about 18 inches high. Placing it on his easel, he took his clean palette, saying, "This is the way to set it. You begin with white (placing a dab near his thumb hold), then with yellow ochre, then with red ochre; then with permanent blue, and then with raw sienna." As he finished he whirled around, leveled his black eyes upon me, and said sharply, "Will you remember that?" "Yes", I promised.

He then put some oil on the palette, and taking his brush, thinned out the sienna, saying, "You sketch it in with this", and he sketched in a small figure of a girl. Then with a light touch of a flat brush, which he rested with its own weight, he drew a streak of white, yellow, red and blue to a common center with a few light flips of his brush. He blended them without puddling, which did not crush the minute granulations of the paint; and applied a light, deft, crisp touch to the canvas without the colors losing any of their original sparkle.

Wheeling around, he again said, "Do you understand that?" "Yes," I answered. "Will you ever forget it?" "No." Then turning, he repeated his strokes, and after every telling one, would turn, fasten his black eyes on me and repeat, "Do you understand that?" "Yes," I would answer. "Will you ever forget it?" "No," -- and I never have. So he went on, repeating after every telling stroke, "Will you ever forget it?" counter sinking and welding every idea with the force and flash of his dark, dark eyes. He then added:

"If you make a mistake in laying on your color, don't try to correct it; but take it off with a palette knife and paint it in fresh." Homer finished the little figure, which was a brilliant one in effect; then sitting back, he said, "Will you ever forget what I have told you?" "No." "That's right, "he answered. Then he got up and started to leave. Shaking hands, he said smilingly, "Don't forget what I have told you, and if you ever want anything more, come back and see me."note6

Abbey and Homer had both belonged to the "Tile Club," a small informal club with a maximum membership of about twenty. The significance of the Tile Club should not be underestimated because of its small membership. Although it existed only about 10 years, with a cumulative membership total of about 37, eight Tile Club members, including Abbey and Homer, were among the first 46 chosen to be members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.note7 It also had been the subject of three Scribner's articles and a book. Prior to Abbey's departure to England in 1878, the Tile Club gave a dinner in Abbey's honor which Winslow Homer is known to have attended, for the guests, including Homer, signed Abbey's menu.note8 Although Abbey resided in England the rest of his life and became a member of the Royal Academy in London, he also held membership in the Society of American Artists which merged into the older National Academy of Design,note9 the American Watercolor Society,note10 and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His works included illustrations for books of Herrick, Shakespeare, and other English poets, the official coronation painting of Edward VII, the mural "Sir Galahad's Vision of the Holy Grail" at the Boston Public Library, and murals for the state capital in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.note11

Abbey was in a position to have known the full significance of Homer's work and to have appreciated whatever may be unique about it. We should take seriously his dissatisfaction with the "ignoramuses."


In the late 1870's, when Homer belonged to the "Tile Club" each member had a nickname. Homer went by the name "The Obtuse Bard."note12 Lloyd Goodrich explained the name as an "allusion to his Greek namesake."note13 Gordon Hendricks wrote, "The `obtuseness' must have been facetious, yet having a grain of apparent truth."note14

Homer was "obtuse" in his behavior, in ways which remind me of John Ciardi's comment about poetry, "There is duplicity at work. The poet pretends to be talking about one thing, and all the while he is talking about many others."note15 Evidence of this exists throughout the glimpses which remain into Homer's personality. Elihu Veddernote16 (1836-1923) related this story of Homer,

...Mullin was anything but neat, except in the matter of whiskey: he always took that neat. For one who treated himself so generously to that article, he was singularly abstemious with regard to his friends, for he never treated any one but once, and that happened in this way:

Mullin, meeting that best of painters, Winslow Homer, was asked by the latter if he would have a drink. This jumping with Mullin's usual mood, he accepted at once. Homer then explained that he had tickets for drinks at Hanbury Smith's, which was then the very fountain-head of mineral waters in Broadway. Mullin, who never drank water, took Saratoga High Rock, as he told me himself, and it gave him the stomach-ache, but he said nothing and bided his time. It came. He met H., and inviting him to take a drink, led him to an apothecary's, where he said to the clerk: "My friend wants a drink. Will you please give him a drink of -- castoroil."note17

After the National Academy of Design established a rule permitting the use of glass over paintings in 1886, "Winslow Homer complained that in looking at a glass-covered picture, he could see only the reflection of his bald head."note18 Homer's good friends, Homer Martin (1836-1897) and Enoch Wood Perrynote19 (1831-1915) are also mentioned as arguing against the glass.note20 This is notable because after Homer died, J. Eastman Chase wrote,

As an illustration of this whimsical view of what he believed to be the vagaries of the public taste, let me give this letter dated Scarboro, Maine, May 14, 1888:

"I have an idea for next winter, if what I am now engaged on is a success, and Mr. K. is agreeable. That is to exhibit an oil-painting in a robbery-box with an etching from it in the end of your gallery, with a pretty girl at the desk to sell. "It should be explained that to him the gaudy glamour of a plush-lined shadow-box and thick plate glass meant nothing else than "robbery." I think it could be truely said that no man was less moved than he by the prestige of high prices and the entrance to great collections, which are so often the "successful" artist's chief stock-in-trade. His honest soul revolted at a success bought at such a cost.

Beneath what often might be mistaken for brusqueness of manner dwelt a most kindly nature. He was a charming companion, not effusive, witty and racy in his conversation. The wrinkles around his the eyes in this somewhat austere face recorded the rare humor that had helped as a solvent to the difficult things in life which I feel that he must have known. He was a grave humorist -- a reticent poet.note21

Chase's explanation of the letter was necessary, for Homer's meaning was quite different from what he wrote on the surface.

It often remains difficult to be sure of Homer's meaning. Consider this noted in a biography of Augustus St. Gaudens.

Gus was delighted to be an "Academician "both in France and America, and as soon as he had a chance he proposed the name of Winslow Homer, a painter he greatly admired -- a cousin of Augusta's [his wife]. Winslow Homer was duly elected but refused the honor. He said he was in his seventieth year, "unloading and shaking many responsibilities..." and "securing" himself "a peaceful old age." He added unsolicited advice. "Do you not wish you could control your ambition and have the same?"note22

The commentary was written by a biographer of St. Gaudens. Homer's letter may have had quite a different meaning to St. Gaudens, for the record shows that Winslow Homer was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters on May 13, 1905 and that chair number 21 was his until he died on September 28, 1910.note23

Edward Kelly related that Homer once put a sign on his door which said "COAL BIN." Kelly quotes Homer's response when asked about it, "Oh, he said, my father sent word that he was coming down yesterday, and I put up that sign so that he would not find me."note24 Philip Beam, in his book Winslow Homer at Prout's Neck, has preserved much information about Homer's personal life and stories which reveal a sense of Homer's nature. Beam's book (especially the final two chapters, "The Man and the Artist" and "The Final Decade") provides the best available record of material from which to gain insight into Homer's personality. Here is an excerpt from the chapter "The Man and the Artist,"

Homer would call a visitor's attention to the sketch, and later pull off the hog's nose (actually a red tin tag from a plug of Lucky Strike chewing tobacco) and move it over to the horizon. When the visitor looked at the picture again, the tag had become a scarlet setting sun. His few self-portraits are jocular caricatures, like the one called Our Special that shows him as a Civil War artist at the Front. Among friends he even laughed at his own baldness, about which he was ordinarily quite sensitive. He told Mrs. Larrabee that his father once got angry at him and skimmed a broken plate across the room at him, which shaved all his hair off.

He frequently laughed at himself, his pictures, and his family. The Homers on several occasions had group photographs taken, and one of these struck Winslow as a little pompous looking; he combined the picture with one of a Winged Victory from a magazine, flying with a palm branch in one hand and about to award the "Familia Homer" a laurel wreath with the other. Arthur is looking up, apparently at the figure, and Winslow was so delighted with the pseudo-classical paste-up that he had it framed, and hung it on his studio wall where it is still to be seen.

Even about the to him necessary business of being undisturbed, he sometimes had a little fun. When he was working near Cannon Rock (where nine of his greatest marines were conceived) he would post a small but boldly lettered sign at the head of the path which read: SNAKES! MICE! This was to discourage the curiosity of the "damned old women," as he called some of the more elderly lady summer people. When the scheme worked he was as delighted as a schoolboy.

Once Winslow put his ability at practical joking to therapeutic use. In 1895 Father Homer decided his time had come, so he had a bed set up in the Ark living room, where he lay all day, waited on by Mrs. Munroe and the newly arrived Lewis. His son Charles brought him champagne, and though the old man was an avowed advocate of the temperance movement, it was accepted as a medicine. All in all he found the situation much to his liking. His doctor told Winslow that although there was nothing organically wrong, his father really would die if he continued to languish in bed. Winslow replied, "I'll get him up."

He repaired to the studio and rigged himself up in a dressing gown, slippers, and his Zouave fez -- all bright red. He had Lewis close both doors in the living room, and walked up and down the hall, sprinkling sulphur on a shovelful of burning coals. When the odor of "fire and brimstone" had filled the house, he held the embers so as to cast a weird light upward on his contorted face, and thrust his head through the door nearest the bed muttering gibberish. The self-styled invalid made a phenomenal recovery and fled the room, long nightshirt flapping, shrieking that the Devil had come for him in person. Though this sounds like a boyish kind of psychotherapy, Winslow was fifty-nine at the time. He loved gags of this sort that fitted in with his sense of the dramatic.note25

 William Downes, Homer's first biographer, noted his obscurity of meaning. As Downes wrote,

His words were often open to an ironical interpretation, and one could not always make sure whether he was speaking seriously or, as the pithy slang phrase has it, "through his hat." Only if you are sensitive to his meaning can you see a purpose.note26

Goodrich commented,

The whole family was given to sharp but good-humored raillery of this kind, such as Arthur's nickname for Undertow-- "the worms-for-bait picture." They loved playing unsubtle practical jokes on one another. It was not a family to encourage any genius complex in its members.note27

It is not only difficult to extract the true meaning from his writing, but also from the stories of his activities. Recall the "COAL BIN" sign which Kelly clearly reported was to keep his FATHER from finding him. When we consider that the sign was directed at his father, we may recognize the incident as a practical joke. It would be easy however to mistake that incident as evidence of a tendency toward isolation, but that interpretation is in fact not supported when you know the full details as related by Kelly.

In "The Final Decade" Beam reports this incident, which took place after Homer suffered a stroke which "had left him with some muscular impairment and had seriously affected his eyesight. "The butcher related what happened to Homer's nephew and the nephew told Beam the story. Beam related the Butcher's story,

"I stopped to give Winslow his meat, and he came out to the cart, which was like old Bart Pillsbury's with the back that raised up rather than a door. Well, Winnie came around and gave his head a hard bump, and he blasted Hell out of me. I said, `Now look here, you got no business going `round when you can't see.' Then Winslow said, nicely, `Come in, Harvey.' We sat and drank for a while, and then Winnie said, `Now, dammit, you can't see either. Go out and bump your damned cart yourself.'"note28

Beam also relates a story about the painting Early Evening,

...occasionally, to amuse visitors, Homer had a trick of touching the right corner of the ancient fisherman's eye with a stick of chalk, and instead of looking out to sea the old salt would have the appearance of leering at the two girls.note29

As amusing and entertaining as these various stories may be, there is a much larger point to be realized: If "obtuseness," practical jokes, and multiple meanings (The duplicity of poetry.) were part of Homer's personality, WE SHOULD NOT BE SURPRISED TO FIND THOSE QUALITIES REFLECTED IN HIS ART.

In a letter advising his younger brother J. Alden Weir (1852-1919, another Tile Club member), John Weir (1841-1926, Director of the Yale School of Fine Arts 1869-1913) wrote,

...But let me suggest in addition that when one speaks of what he is going to do, he loses just so much of the power of doing it as is based upon the secretive sense of effecting a surprise, and this is always considerable in Art. There are incentives -- strongones -- in keeping one's purposes absolutely secret in Art, for the chief reward the artist gets is the surprise and admiration of his brother artists.note30

"Brother artist" Edwin Abbey and Homer himself seem to suggest that Homer's work was not been fully understood, yet possibly a complete explanation might have spoiled some surprising effect, of the kind Weir mentions. It is perhaps as with humor, for if you have to explain a joke, it is not funny anymore.

When William Downes wrote to Winslow Homer proposing a biography, Homer wrote back,

It may seem ungrateful to you that after your twenty-five years of hard work in booming my pictures I should not agree with you in regard to that proposed sketch of my life. But I think that it would probably kill me to have such [a] thing appear, and, as the most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public, I must decline to give you any particulars in regard to it.note31

In Downes’ biography of Homer written after Homer died, Downes emphasized the dual nature of Homer's art, "His art was intensely personal and intensely American."note32 Since Homer had stated to Downes that his personal life was "of no concern to the public," we can reasonably conclude, that Homer intended that it only be known to intimate friends. This seems to be confirmed by Downes in the biography, which was written with the cooperation of Winslow's two brothers. Downes wrote in the preface however,

With admirable loyalty his brothers have scrutinized every personal detail with sole regard to what he would have been likely to approve, a the family habit of reserve in such matters is strong. The best things are often those which do not get into print. The reader has the privilege of reading between the lines, and it he chooses to exercise it here, he will find nothing but what is creditable and honorable to Winslow Homer.note33

According to Downes, Homer's biography was censored by the surviving brothers and specifically the censorship was with regard to personal details. Thus, while Downes informed us that Homer's art is "intensely personal," he also pointed out that personal details were censored from his book. If Homer intended to hide the "intensely personal" side of his art, this might explain the meaning of his self-portrait cartoon ink drawing which he labeled, "W. H. hiding his light under a bushel."note34

There has been a cloud of secrecy surrounding research materials which concern Homer. The Lloyd Goodrich collection is still closed from view, even after Goodrich's death, but that fact is even more interesting when it is noted that Downes "notes and scrapbooks" seem to be in that collection.note35 Also, Gordon Hendricks was reported in Art News to have stated after he finally won a battle to see the materials Philip Beam collected at Bowdoin College, "I know it's not the entire collection."note36

Homer was obtuse and guarded his personal life from view. That would seem to present a handicap in gaining an understanding the "intensely personal" side of his art. It would seem possible, however, that Homer's Tile Club name, "The Obtuse Bard," may have meant all that the words suggest, including that Homer regarded himself, or his friends regarded him, as a sort of poet who was difficult to be perceived, a bard who is obtuse.


If anyone may provide us with an understanding of Homer, it would be John LaFarge (1835-1910) for he had been Homer's good friend for half a century and is said to have been the only colleague with whom Homer enjoyed discussing theories of art.note37 Born eleven months before Homer, he died only 45 days after Homer. He enjoyed a wonderful reputation both as painter and architectural decorator. LaFarge's architectural career began, in a large scale, with his work for Henry Hobson Richardson (1836-1886) coordinating the interior decoration of Trinity Church in Boston, at which time LaFarge employed George Maynard, Augustus St. Gaudens, and Francis Millet as assistants.note38 These assistants are mentioned because they too became members of the Tile Club, as did Stanford White who became a well-known New York architect and was also working for Richardson at that time.note39 LaFarge was also an organizer, lecturer (Harvard,note40 the Metropolitan Museum and the Chicago Art Institute), and writer (articles for magazines and a few books). Finally, he was also well known for his travels to Japan and the South Seas with Henry Adams (through his writing about those trips).

Another Henry Adams, curator of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, begins his essay "The Mind of LaFarge" with this description,

In an age of great conversationalists, John LaFarge was perhaps the greatest." He was quite the most interesting person we knew," wrote Henry James, in remembering his Newport years."A most winning and insinuating old man," noted Bernard Berenson after his first meeting with the artist. "I have heard some brilliant talkers, Whistler amongst them," wrote Royal Cortissoz, " but I have never heard one remotely comparable to LaFarge." Henry Adams [19th Century American Writer] judged LaFarge the best conversationalist of his time, and even William James, who was at times offended by LaFarge's slightly pompous tone, once wrote to his brother Henry, "I pine for some conversation of an intellectual character.... Would I might see LaFarge."note41


Millet's Influence

In 1859, John LaFarge, Henry James Jr. (1843-1916), and William James (1842-1910) studied painting in Newport, Rhode Island with William Morris Hunt (1824-1879).note42 Hunt had studied in Europe from 1846 until 1855, first in Düsseldorf, then Paris (with Couture), and his last three European years in Barbizon with Jean Francois Millet (1814-1875). After returning to America, Hunt always claimed Millet as his true master.note43 Almost fifty years later, LaFarge would write about Hunt's friend Millet in his Scammon lectures on the Barbizon school presented at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1903 and published in 1908 as The Higher Life in Art. For LaFarge, the significance of the Barbizon painters was not their scheme of painting, but their "higher" ideals. He wrote,

But it is one of the characteristics of this group of men (whom we misname the Barbizon, or Fontainebleau, men), that their scheme of ideas could be different, and yet that they could recognise [sic] a common bond of union.note44


Quite otherwise is an attitude like Millet's, though his characteristic paintings are more than most the expression of perpetual deep feelings -- but they are mainly based on actual sight, on a severe realism.note45


He made rapid notes of everything that moved, that was transitory and different from the posing of the studio. In that way he learned the difference between Nature on the wing, as it were, and that artificial combination of parts successfully adjusted, which is the usual foundation of the picture or the statue made in the studio. I cannot too much insist upon that. In every one of these talks I have in some form or other referred to it, and with these men of our talks the idea was so grounded and so natural that they were not aware of the exceeding difference they were making at the beginning of their career.note46

Millet's realism was not however confined to photographic like copying. LaFarge wrote,

His friend and my friend, William Hunt, our American, told me that he had seen Millet tie up bundles of corn to prove to some peasants how much better it could be done. And this is the important point; all the more was Millet impelled to disengage from the realism which he understood and could copy, the ideal type of each of the functions in the life of the worker in the field.

Therefore it is not, I say a sower, a reaper, a gleaner that he has given; it is the sower, the reaper, the gleaner.note47

It is in this context that we should note one of LaFarge's comments about Winslow Homer, in the concluding remarks of his Scammon lecture series given at the Chicago Art Institute. LaFarge wrote,

In one of my lectures I think I referred to one of our artists, to Winslow Homer, as having been influenced by these men. It is so true that away far back in the fifties, not being able to see the originals, he drew from the French lithographs we had here, which were almost entirely devoted to the reproduction of the work of these men. At that time we had but very few examples in the country, exceedingly few, perhaps it might be said none, of Corot, none of Rousseau. By chance there happened to be a few Millets. The foundation then in great part of such an independent talent -- I might say more than talent, of such a genius as Mr. Winslow Homer's -- refers back then to this school and to the teachings, the inevitable teachings, even from studying them in translations.

On that, as a proof again of what I wish students to understand, is built a form of painting as absolutely different as it could possibly be; a thoroughly American system of painting, a representation of American light and air, of everything that makes the distinction; even the moral fibre (sic)and character of New England being depicted all through the picture, whether it be the rocks and the sea, or the men who hang about them.

Those are the lessons that these men give. I only refer to that to encourage you, those of you who are students, to look to these men for the principles rather than sometimes the practice of their work.note48

It was not a scheme of painting that LaFarge discussed in his Scammon lectures, but a viewpoint of Nature, reality as combined with an expression of ideal types. John Weir expressed a similar view of Homer in 1875, in a letter of advise to his younger brother J. Alden Weir,

It is not the method which makes the artist, but the style and expression of his work, and this of course, no academy can furnish, for this is what the man individually supplies. But your studies show how advantageously you have spent your time in Paris and they evince the benefit of your discipline. What I said about young Ward's pictures was with reference rather to the fact that they were no contribution in any sense to the higher things in art. And then I should say with respect to your choice of subject in the Brittany Interior that it was commonplace. Do not misunderstand me, you know we are to talk freely to get at the real things, and we must not be thin skinned, and you are not. The element or motif of your picture was "the picturesque"-- and I think the picturesque merely, belonged to the last century rather than to this. Artists then sought material that made a picture rather than a theme that pictorial expression made vivid to the mind and the higher faculties. Winslow Homer's Prisoners from the Front was in the true sense a contribution to Art, for although the technical execution was immature perhaps, and crude, it was vigorously in keeping with the spirit of the occasion, and the whole characteristic of the struggle between the North and the South, with the typical qualities of the respective officers and men faithfully and astonishingly rendered. This indicates the seeing eye, to appreciate character and the respective values that compose it, so unerringly...The notions current in the schools are born of mediocrity...But you will notice that the marked ones will gradually separate themselves, as you and your few friends, and then again each of these will set up his own standard and hold to his own views. There is a distinct inner voice in each of us that points the road through the strongest tendencies of our sympathies. The thing is to obey it.note49

George Berkeley and Pragmatism

In 1985, Henry Adams wrote about these three men who painted together in Hunt's Newport studio,

LaFarge soon took on the role of intellectual mentor to the James brothers, introducing them to French literature, discoursing with them on philosophical questions, and going on painting excursions with them. Very often they visited Bishop Berkeley's rock, the subject of several of LaFarge's major paintings, and a favorite spot of the famous philosopher who first denied the existence of a distinction between reality and sensation.note50

Adams also wrote,

For William James, Henry James, and John Lafarge, to a degree that has not fully been appreciated, all explored a similar philosophical viewpoint: all three shifted the focus of attention in their work from the object itself to the perception of the object in the field of consciousness.note51

When Hunt departed Barbizon in 1855, he sold his large house to a friend of Millet, painter Karl Bodmer (1809-1893).note52 Today, Bodmer is most famous for his artistic record of American Indian life and culture, which he made while accompanying Prince Maximilian on an expedition up the Missouri from 1832 to 1834. By coincidence perhaps, it is this friend of Millet and buyer of Hunt's house in Barbizon, who gives us an incident useful as an illustration to understand the perceptual views shared by LaFarge, the James brothers, and George Berkeley (1685-1753, who had lived in Newport a century earlier).note53

On July 25, 1833, as Bodmer was sailing up the Missouri River with Prince Maximilian, he and the Prince were amazed to see castles in the distance. Prince Maximilian recorded in his journal,

... This brought us to a remarkable place, where we thought that we saw before us, two white mountain castles. On the mountain of the south bank, there was a thick, snow-white layer, a far extended stratum of a white sandstone, which had been partly acted upon by the waters. At the end where it is exposed, being intersected by the valley, two high pieces, in the shape of buildings, had remained standing, and upon them lay remains of a more compact, yellowish red, thinner stratum of sand-stone, which formed the roofs of the united building. On the facade of the whole building, there were smaller perpendicular slits, which appeared to be so many windows. These singular natural formations, when seen from a distance, so perfectly resembled buildings raised by art, that we were deceived by them, till we were assured of our error. We agreed with Mr.Mitchell to give these original works of nature the name of "The White Castles." Mr. Bodmer has given a very faithful representation of them.note54

Then on August 6, 1833 the Prince recorded this,

... Here, on both sides of the river, the most strange forms are seen, and you may fancy that you see colonnades, small round pillars with large globes or a flat slab at the top, littletowers, pulpits, organs with their pipes, old ruins, fortresses, castles, churches, with pointed spires, &c &c, almost every mountain bearing on its summit some similar structure.

Towards nine o'clock the valley began to be particularly interesting, for its fantastic forms were more and more numerous; every moment, as we proceeded along, new white fairy like castles appeared, and a painter who had leisure might fill whole volumes with these original landscapes. As proofs of this we may refer to some of these figures which Mr. Bodmer sketched very accurately.

What Bodmer and Maximilian had seen were memories of castles seen on their travels along the Rhine River in Germany. The Indians had never seen "white castles" along the Missouri River, for they had no knowledge of castles. Bodmer "sketched very accurately," but at the same time what he selected was chosen because of its "particular interest." To him, it was not just a rock formation, but one that was "particularly interesting" because of its relationship to past memories, to previous experience. In the case of the "White Castles," Prince Maximillian recorded that they were initially deceived by the image, while on the 6th of August, they do not appear to have been deceived by illusions, but were nonetheless fascinated by what they fancied.

LaFarge's friend, William James (at times now called the "Father of Psychology") discussed illusions in his Principles of Psychology first published in 1890,

Note that in every illusion what is false is what is inferred, not what is immediately given. The "this," if it were felt by itself alone, would be all right; it only becomes misleading by what it suggests. If it is a sensation of sight, it may suggest a tactile object, for example, which later tactile experiences prove to be not there. The so-called "fallacy of the senses," of which the ancient sceptics made so much account, is not fallacy of the senses proper, but rather of the intellect, which interprets wrongly what the senses give.

So much premised, let us look a little closer at these illusions. They are due to two main causes. The wrong object is perceived either because

1) Although not on this occasion the real cause, it is yet the habitual, inveterate, or most probable cause of "this"; or because

2) The mind is temporarily full of the thought of that object, and therefore "this" is peculiarly prone to suggest it at this moment.note55

For William James, writing as psychologist, Bodmer's"castle" may be classified as an illusion of the second kind. For the Prince, the illusion of the White Castle does not seem to have been any more interesting than the formations described on August 6, where they fancied seeing various objects. For the Prince and Bodmer, it seems to be the visual relationship to past visual memories which makes these formations interesting or remarkable, without regard to any possible distinction between deceiving illusions as contrasted to things seen only through the use of their imaginations.

Whatever object we actually may "see," whether illusion, imagined, or real, is determined by our memories. As William James wrote in his Principles of Psychology,

Sensations, once experienced, modify the nervous organism, so that copies of them arise again in the mind after the original outward stimulus is gone.No mental copy, however, can arise in the mind, of any kind of sensation which has never been directly excited from without.note56

This point was also made by LaFarge in his Metropolitan Museum lectures given in 1893, when he wrote,

We can consider all that we record in our brains as memories composed of many other memories. We can, therefore, see nothing without the use of the memory of sight -- or we should not know what it is.note57

The same point had been made by George Berkeley, as early as 1709,

...there lies a mistake in our imagining that the pictures of external objects are painted on the bottom of the eye. It has been shown there is not resemblance between the ideas of sight and things tangible. It has likewise been demonstrated that the proper objects of sight do not exist without the mind.note58

It is the mind which recognizes external objects through the "ideas of sight." According to Berkeley, William James, and LaFarge, we first learn to associate a visual symbol (an idea of sight) with an "object." After the visual symbol is known to represent the idea of the "object," the "object" can be "seen" at a distance. The visual symbol (idea of sight) is not actually the object, but only a kind of evidence of the object. The context in which the visual symbol is seen provides cues in the process of recognition, or sometimes misleads us to think the form we see is the object, when it is not (Bodmer's White Castles).

During the time that Berkeley lived in Newport, Rhode Island, he wrote Alciphron.note59 In the fourth dialogue, Berkeley wrote this,

Euphranor: Is it not plain, therefore, that neither the castle, the planet, nor the cloud which you see here are those real ones which you suppose exist at a distance?

Alciphron: What am I to think then? Do we see anything at all, or is it altogether fancy and illusion?

Euphranor: Upon the whole, it seems the proper objects of sight are light and color, with their several shades and degrees; all which, being infinitely diversified and combined, form a language wonderfully adapted to suggest and exhibit to us the distances, figures, situations, dimensions, and various qualities of tangible objects: not by similitude, nor yet by inference of necessary connection, but by the arbitrary imposition of Providence, just as words suggest the things signified by them.

Alciphron: How! Do we not, strictly speaking, perceive by sight such things as trees, houses, men, rivers, and the like?

Euphranor: We do, indeed, perceive or apprehend those things by the faculty of sight. But will it follow from thence that they are the proper and immediate objects of sight, any more than that all those things are the proper and immediate objects of hearing which are signified by the help of words or sounds?

Alciphron: You would have us think, then, that light, shades, and colors, variously combined, answer to the several articulations of sound in language; and that, by means thereof, all sorts of objects are suggested to the mind through the eye, in the same manner as they are suggested by words or sounds through the ear: that is, neither from necessary deduction to the judgement, nor from similitude to the fancy, but purely and solely from experience, custom, and habit.note 60

Philosopher/psychologist, William James extended Berkeley's ideas. James wrote that the idea of an object can be communicated between people only because both parties have a common experience with the idea of the "object,"

... Practically, then, our minds meet in a world of objects which they share in common, which would still be there, if one or several of the minds were destroyed.note61

James commenting on his own philosophical position (called "radical empiricism" or "pragmatism") wrote the following,

For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system.note62

Thus, Bodmer and the Prince shared the illusion of the "White Castles," because they shared the "object" "castle" in common. Their common experience also allowed them to share their experiences of fancy on August 6. For William James, the pragmatic philosopher, both their experiences of illusions and fancied images, were (from the perspective of radical empiricism) "as ‘real’ as anything else." The experience of the "White Castle" illusion could not have happened to an Indian however, unless the Indian first had "experiences" of castles. Bodmer and the Prince (had they wanted to) could have shown an Indian drawings of castles, and through those pictures could have given the Indian experiences of the conceptual object "castle," such that the Indian could have learned to recognize a "castle" even in pictures never seen before. But not until the idea of the object "castle" is known, and there is also a visual understanding of "castles," could there be recognition of a visual symbol as representing a castle, whether by illusion or fancy, or even if they came across one at a distance. Only then, could the illusion or fancying of the "White Castle" become a possibility for our hypothetical Indian. Only then could he recognize a real "castle" from a distance. William James’ point is that it is only through symbols of common experiences that we can share ideas.note63 It is this philosophical position, with its emphasis on the "object in the field of consciousness" which Henry Adams states is reflected in the works of William James, Henry James, and John LaFarge. "Pragmatism" ("Radical Empiricism") was based on Berkeley, for as Edwin S. Gaustad wrote,

When Peirce's benefactor and friend at Harvard, William James, gave Peirce [Charles Sanders Peirce, 1839-1914] credit for launching the pragmatic school of philosophy, the latter responded: "Berkeley on the whole has more right to be considered the introducer of pragmatism into philosophy than any other one man, though I was more explicit in enunciating it."note64

William James, in a chapter of Principles of Psychology titled THE PERCEPTION OF "THINGS,"note65 discussed Berkeley. James wrote,

Berkeley compared our visual sensations to the words of a language, which are but signs or occasions for our intellects to pass to what the speaker means. As the sounds called words have no inward affinity with the ideas they signify, so neither have our visual sensations, according to Berkeley, any inward affinity with the things of whose presence they make us aware. Those things are tangibles; their real properties, such as shape, size, mass, consistency, position, reveal themselves only to touch. But the visible signs and the tangible significates are by long custom so "closely twisted, blended, and incorporated together, and the prejudice is so confirmed and riveted in our thoughts by a long tract of time, by the use of language, and want of reflections," that we think we see the whole object, tangible and visible alike, in one simple indivisible act.note66

It is important to note that for James and Berkeley visual sensations provide but signs, like words. We need to keep all of this in mind as we try to understand how Winslow Homer, "The Obtuse Bard," may have used these word-like visual symbols. Especially in Part Two of this chapter, as we continue with the ideas of John LaFarge, extracted from his Considerations on Painting, you may recognize additional points of correspondence between his ideas and both George Berkeley and William James.


With LaFarge and Homer friends for 50 years and LaFarge the only person with whom Homer is known to have discussed art theory, LaFarge can be expected to have known as much as anyone about the personal side of Homer's art. Shortly before LaFarge died in 1910, he wrote a lengthy letter about Winslow Homer and sent it to Gustav Kobbe, another Tile Club friend of Homer and signer of Abbey's 1878 menu.note67 LaFarge died before the letter was printed in the Herald. Kobbe gave the LaFarge letter a full page in the newspaper, supplemented it with photographs of LaFarge, Homer, and representative paintings and wrote an editorial comment which included the following:

[LaFarge] did not write immediately after his fellow artist's death. Weak and himself approaching the valley of the shadow into which Homer had preceded him, he yet waited to consider the form what he had to say to the public should take, and it finally assumed shape in a letter to the editor of the HERALD.note68

Among the things LaFarge wrote in that long letter was this,

Quite late this man went to Europe and studied there and found things ready to his hand, but I do not know what more he got beyond what he had already. I have some studies of his, and there must be very many. He seems to have dealt little with the French artists, nor do I know exactly the degree of appreciation which met him from Americans; nor have I ever heard what he thought or said of the great masters' work. He might have been as silent upon that subject as on most. A great man, then, has left for us what I think is the only record of absolutely American Yankee expression.note69

We will look at some of what LaFarge said in detail.

"Quite late this man went to Europe"

Homer did go "quite late" to Europe, not until 1867 when he was 31, after he had a national reputation from his illustrations in Harper's Weekly and after he had been elected a full member of the National Academy of Design in 1865.note70

This was also after he had been honored with membership in the Century Association (Century Club of New York), a social club "composed of authors, artists, and amateurs of letters and the fine arts."note71 Homer was nominated to The Century Club by William Oliver Stone (1830-1875) and Eastman Johnson (1824-1906).note72 Stone, a portrait painter, was "a well-known and highly-esteemed artist in his day," but he died at the early age of 45.note73 Johnson was Homer's neighbor at the University Building, a former lithographer's apprentice in Boston (as was Homer),and for almost 20 years had been good friends with Samuel Worcester Rowse (1822-1901)note74, who Homer seems likely to have known from John Bufford's lithography shop in Boston, where Homer was an apprentice from 1854 to 1856.note75 Homer kept his Century Club membership throughout his lifetime.note76

While most American artists had gone to Europe to learn to become painters, Homer went to Paris to see, among other things, his own paintings on display. Lloyd Goodrich wrote the following in his 1944 biography of Homer,

The great Universal Exposition was being held in Paris, and Prisoners from the Front and The Bright Side were included in the small American section -- one of the first occasions that a group of American art had been seen in Europe. In the Gazette des Beaux-Arts Paul Mantz wrote of Homer's works: "This is firm, precise painting, in the manner of Gerome, but with less dryness," while the London Art Journal said: "These works are real; the artist paints what he has seen and known." Four members of the international jury of awards voted to give him a medal, but their votes being insufficient, the prize went to Frederic E. Church.note77

"Beyond what he had already"

We have already discussed LaFarge's statement in The Higher Life in Art  which said Homer was influenced by the Barbizon painters in the 1850's. That influence was mentioned again in LaFarge's letter to Kobbe. Downes paralleled LaFarge's position concerning the lack of influence by the Paris trip when he wrote,

Homer spent ten months in France. At the end of that time his money gave out, and he was obliged to return home. He did no studying and no serious work of any kind worth mentioning while he was in Paris, and it is probable that he devoted most of his time to sight-seeing and recreation.note78

Homer was in Paris with a friend, Albert Warren Kelsey (1840-1921), who had already become internationally known as an economist because of his knowledge of the South and its capability to resume cotton production after the war. Goodrich commented about a photographnote79 of Homer and Kelsey in Paris, "A souvenir of this friendship is a photograph of the two, inscribed by Kelsey ‘Damon and Pythias.’"note80 In a privately published book, Autobiographical Notes and Memoranda, Kelsey wrote about many of his experiences for the benefit of his descendants, but I found no mention of his being in Paris with Homer. This is not surprising however, for Kelsey's stated purpose for writing his "Memoranda" was to

"afford to my descendants the opportunity of realizing how much happier and safer is a peaceful, quiet and well-ordered existence, than one filled with unhealthy excitement, may they profit by my experience to this extent; and learn our happiness depends rather upon limiting our ambition "to see it all for ourselves," and "letting well enough alone," than by indulging the gypsy instinct of roaming about this wide world and visiting other countries than our own."note81

It would have been contrary to his stated objective to have included anything about his visit to Paris with Homer two years before he was married. The book does however provide considerable insight into the character of Homer's loyal friend.

During the Civil War, Kelsey entered the Navy and sailed under Captain Sam W. Mather, a former "clipper" ship captain. His left hand was shot and permanently crippled, and Capt. Mather was killed at Mosquito Inlet in Florida, March 22, 1862. Kelsey was medically discharged in 1863.note82 In 1864, he went to near Lake Washington, Mississippi, where he grew cotton on a plantation in captured Confederate territory while the Civil War was still being fought. The story of his near lynching by Confederate Scouts is fascinating and amusing, but it also demonstrates a calculating mind. Here is an illustrative example,

Perhaps the most amusing acquaintance with these men was the sale of my boots to their commander. Although they had been well satisfied with the sum of money I had turned over to them on our first meeting, I later became convinced that they were doubtful if I might not have a larger amount at my command, so I studied out a scheme to disabuse their minds. If there was one thing the Confederates lacked it was decent footwear. Boots and shoes had a value beyond that of money in their eyes. Before leaving the North, I had taken care to provide myself with the very best pair of boots I could procure paying thirty-five dollars for a pair of cavalry boots, with double uppers and triple soles. I had frequently been aware of the eyes of the officer in command fixed upon them, and as I felt that my life was safer without them, to say nothing of my liberty, I made up my mind to try and "kill two birds with one stone," and get rid of this too enviable possession, while obtaining the best terms for my future safety. Accordingly, on one of these periodical visits, I accosted the senior officer, and asked him if he would not do me the favor to give me the price of a ticket to Memphis in exchange for my boots, at the same time extolling and exhibiting their merits, and asserting that, as I was a much larger man than he, they were sure to be large enough for him. I stated frankly that I had become convinced there was no hope of my being able to make any money down there, and was determined to get up the river as soon as I could arrange to get away. My plan succeeded beyond my expectations. He passed me over fifteen dollars of my own greenbacks with the utmost alacrity, and I put on an extremely shabby pair of worn-down shoes in their place. As our trade was witnessed by several members of his command, it quite sufficed to convince the entire body of my absolute need of funds, and I felt very much safer and slept more at my ease than before.note83

Immediately following the Civil War, Kelsey made a survey of the situation in the South for his Boston employer, political economist Edward Atkinson. Some of his correspondence to Atkinson was published in The Nation, September 1865 to January 1866.note84 Kelsey began one letter printed in The Nation with this,

Having since the termination of the war, occupied nearly five months -- from July until the latter part of December, 1865 -- in making an extended tour through the Southern States, passing over portions of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, it has been suggested to the writer that the general result of his observation and experience in the South, more especially as regards the present disposition of the people and the feeling they entertain toward Northern men, might possess sufficient interest for the public to justify him in offering a brief summary of his conclusions upon those questions which at present time justly occupy so considerable a degree of public interest.note85

On January 22, 1866, he testified before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction.note86 According to the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography 50,000 copies of his report "Cotton Culture" were circulated in England.note87 Kelsey wrote of the immediately subsequent period in his life,

...reminds me of the very happiest and most satisfactory portion of my entire life. The year 1866, which I passed mostly in California, or on my way out there, as I made two trips by the Isthmus of Panama that year, going out with Burlingame in the early spring, and returning overland, through the "buffalo country" in October, only to be prevailed upon by my dear friend, James Sturgis, the younger brother of Russell Sturgis, of the great house of Baring Brothers, to return to California in December of the same year. I should name that period as quite the culminating point of my career, extending from 1864 up to 1869, inclusive. During these five years, after I had terminated my connection with the U.S. Naval service, and previous to my marriage, I enjoyed existence as I never had before. I had the good fortune to have satisfied my generous employers in the cotton-planting enterprise I have already described, and they sent me out to California to make a report upon the prospects of investments in the mines of that State, as well as Nevada and Colorado; and it was in the pure air of the high Sierras that my health came back to me, and existence became a boon for which to be very grateful.note88

Thus, two young friends, Homer and Kelsey ("Damon and Pythias"), had become successful recording their observations, one by drawing and painting and the other by reporting socio-economics. With the Civil War over and both full of a sense of achievement, they went to see Paris. There was one other personal item, which may have influenced Homer's decision to go to Paris at the end of 1866, for that was the year his friend, Mary E. Fiske, married someone else note89.

A comment by Kelsey regarding that period, "I enjoyed existence as I never had before," seems to apply equally well to Homer. In fact, Goodrich wrote that Kelsey reported that Homer "thoroughly enjoyed the life of Paris."note90 Illustrations survive which show that Homer went to the Louvre, Notre Dame, and a dance hall. Goodrich wrote," A few years later Alden Weir saw in a small inn at Cernay-la-Villenear Paris, formerly frequented by Courbet and Daubigny and other artists who left pictures in lieu of cash, a haymaking scene by Homer painted on a door-panel."note91

After Homer returned to America in the last part of 1867, he may also have gone with Kelsey to the Caribbean, for Homer did a sketch of Kelsey riding a turtle with a sign "Turks Island" in the background (reproduced in Hendricks).note92 The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography reports that Kelsey went to Turks Island in 1867,note93 apparently departing just before Christmas.note94

Homer kept in touch over the years, for in 1882 he wrote a letter to Kelsey in New York in behalf someone he had met in Cullercoats, England.note95 Interestingly, Kelsey had been in Europe from 1878 to 1882,note96 and only recently had returned to America after his father-in-law (a former congressman from and governor of Wisconsin), Cadwallander Washburn, had a stroke.note97 Although possible, I know of no evidence that Homer visited Kelsey in Europe (when he went to England),note98 but they must have kept in close contact for Homer to have known that Kelsey had returned to America and was in New York, rather than St. Louis where he had lived before going to Europe.note99

One last note about Kelsey, for he seems to have had Homer's sense of humor, as can be seen in this story. In 1866, the year before Homer and Kelsey were in Paris, Kelsey and some friends had been trapped in the Yosemite Valley by a late Spring snowstorm. After believing they were doomed, an Indian found them and led them out by a lower route. When they got back to Sacramento, they celebrated their safe return by having some drinks in the bar of the Golden Eagle Hotel. One of Kelsey's friends, who never drank, made an exception and also celebrated. As the bar was getting ready to close, the usually non-drinking friend saw rats on the opposite side of the room. Kelsey and the others pretended not to see the rats and thoroughly convinced him that he was "seeing things."They helped him upstairs to bed. Kelsey continued,

After undressing him and putting him to bed as if he had been incapable of any such action himself, we sat down and talked in a subdued tone in the dark, until we had persuaded Davenport to doubt the evidence of his own senses; and when we stole out of the room, pretending we thought he was asleep, we left him more of a victim to remorse than the most hardened drunkard. The joke was so good that we determined to keep it up to the end, and refused to converse with him upon the subject the next day, treating him more in sorrow than in anger; and so it happened that Davenport had remained in doubt all those fifteen years, and his first demand upon me was to enquire if it had not really been rats!note100

Kelsey did not tell his friend what they had done until they happened by chance to meet again in Europe 15 years later! Imagine Kelsey with Homer enjoying life in Paris! Then ask yourself whether these two loyal friends would be inclined to disclose the details of their activities to the public, even years later.

"Nor do I know exactly the degree of appreciation which met him from Americans"

Another portion of LaFarge's remark quoted above is the most significant. LaFarge wrote that he did not know "exactly the degree of appreciation which met him from Americans." Downes, the first biographer of Homer, found this to be a confusing anomaly and explained it away by drawing the following conclusion,

Indeed, I am forced to conclude that Mr. LaFarge knew Homer only superficially... It is very strange that LaFarge should have been ignorant of the degree of appreciation which met Homer from Americans, for this was a matter of common knowledge at the time his words were written.note101

At one point, Downes even referred to LaFarge's letter as a "pathetic tribute"note102 having been written, we are led to believe, by a confused, sick, and dying LaFarge. Unfortunately, the dismissal of the "appreciation" comment has persisted even though it is now accepted that Homer and LaFarge did in fact have a long and close friendship. The reason, I believe, Downes did not understand LaFarge's meaning is that he apparently was not sufficiently familiar with LaFarge to know how he usually meant "appreciated." LaFarge did not use words loosely, nor was he likely to have said something not intended. He was, of course, fully aware of the honors and awards which Homer had received, the popularity of his works, and the prices paid. He had exhibited works with Homer, had displayed Homer's works in exhibits he had arranged, and had continuing contact with his friend. LaFarge was among the first seven appointed members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which also included William Dean Howells, Augustus St. Gaudens, Edmund Clarence Stedman, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, John Hay, and Edward MacDowell. These men, the next eight (Henry James, Charles Follen McKim, Henry Adams, Charles Eliot Norton, John Quincy Adams Ward, Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Bailey Aldrich) and the next five (Joseph Jefferson, Elihu Vedder, Richard Watson Gilder, Horace Howard Furness, and John Bigelow) were the eligible voters when Homer was elected to the high honor of membership. LaFarge did know the extent of "appreciation," in the sense of admiration, but that is not what he meant. LaFarge meant "appreciation" in the sense of perceptual awareness, the same way he had usually used the term throughout his own previous writings. LaFarge had written about "appreciation" in his book Considerations on Painting, originally given as a lecture series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1893. In lecture IV, "Misapprehensions of Meaning," he discussed "difficulties that may stand in the way of appreciation."note103 He was concerned with "appreciation" as cognitive perception not as admiration. Again, a few years later in a Scribner's magazine article, he wrote the phrase "methods of appreciation" and explained in that case that he referred to recognition of "signs of thought, of ideas, and perceptions," precisely the same meaning as was in his lectures.note104 He had not thought it necessary to explain his use of the word appreciation.

If LaFarge did not know the degree of perceptual understanding of Homer's art, he must have been thinking of something about Homer's art that was obtuse, or difficult to be perceived. In fact, in his book Considerations on Painting, LaFarge makes the point that the greatest works are not fully understood in their timenote105 and it is significant that he began his letter by calling Homer a "great artist." When LaFarge ended his letter with the comment, "I am so convinced of the future importance of our late friend," he was expressing the view that appreciation of Homer's works will continue to increase, that we will understand Homer's art more and more as we become more familiar with it.

We need not only rely on LaFarge's letter to Kobbe for evidence that he thought Homer was a great painter. I have already quoted a statement from The Higher Life in Art.

He also had written in 1898,

It is essentially un-American to contemplate the fact that the painting of the "Wave" of Mr. Courbet can be solemnly described and commented on, when the great "Wave" of Winslow Homer -- as much more a wave as nature is greater than Homer --is only known to a few persons and to the admiration of artists.note106

Another instance however, in January of 1905, is the most significant. At the American Institute of Architects annual banquet, with Theodore Roosevelt, Justice Harlan, Augustus St. Gaudens, John Hay, Elihu Root, Henry James, the French Ambassador, and Cardinal Gibbon prominently present at the dinner,note107 LaFarge spoke after the French Ambassador. He said,

My own affiliations, my own training, with those of many of us, have been French. I feel that when allusion is made to the French artist who scraped on the bones of the cave bear he was distinctly my ancestor. Through all these thousands and thousands of years I go back and feel that, after all, the only one who has drawn as distinctly and as well, with that firmness of touch, that far down feeling of nature is perhaps derived from such an ancestry but happens to have been born on the fierce wave-beaten coast of New England, and the only man who has ever drawn exactly upon the lines of the dwellers with the cave-bear is a great American painter, as great as any in the world, Winslow Homer.note108

With this statement, there cannot be any question. LaFarge regarded Winslow Homer as more than just a great artist in his time, but "through all these thousands and thousands of years." Still, he did not know how fully Homer's work had been perceived.



I like to think forty years back to LaFarge, late of a [Century] Club night, seated as usual in the Library with a score of members hanging on his golden words. Half closing your eyes, you could imagine a Buddist sage indoctrinating aspirants to wisdom with the most persuasive charm. For though LaFarge did most of the talking, he kept the feeling of an exchange of views, never lost awareness of his hearers as individuals. Such conferences always ended too soon, and left the most silent listener with a feeling of participation.note109

from The Century 1847-1946

In the [Century] Club he [Vedder] was said to be the only member who could make LaFarge, whom Vedder greatly admired, uncomfortable. And I fear there were a few malicious spirits who did not dislike seeing the superiority of the habitually imperturbable LaFarge a little shaken.note110

from The Century1847-1946

This quality [subtlety], peculiarly his [LaFarge's] own, affects me in his writings, so that as a writer I was at one time inclined to find fault with him for a certain elaborate obscurity in his style, which I now see arises from his striving to express shades of thought so delicate that they seem to render words almost useless. Therefore his words seem to hover about a thought as butterflies hover about the perfume of a flower.note111

Elihu Vedder 1910

We can expect to gain some insight from LaFarge's lectures given in 1893 to artists studying at the Metropolitian Museum and published as Considerations on Painting. Even though Homer would not have agreed with LaFarge on all theoretical points, LaFarge's thoughts must reflect some portion of Homer's position.note112 This is a reasonable expectation, since LaFarge regarded Homer as an exceptionally "great artist" and had they had been friends since when they both were about age 23. Whatever qualities LaFarge demanded of great art, he must have found them in Homer's work. When LaFarge questions the extent of "appreciation," he must refer to an incomplete comprehension of some of those qualities.


In LaFarge's first two lectures, the point is made that it is simply not possible to copy nature, because he says, the process of seeing is always a process of recognition based on experience. As you read the excerpts from LaFarge, keep in mind that he was lecturing to students who were learning to become artists. LaFarge wrote,

You need not, therefore, be afraid of the word [realism]; you need not be afraid of indulging the illusion that you are rendering the real reality of the things that you look at-- that you are copying, that you are transcribing. If you ever know how to paint somewhat well, and pass beyond the position of the student who has not yet learned to use his hands as an expression of the memories of his brain, you will always give to nature, that is to say, what is outside of you, the character of the lens through which you see it -- which is yourself.note113

LaFarge's statement was intended to counteract John Ruskin's viewpoint, which was likely to have been known to the students. A half century earlier, Ruskin had written,

We are constantly supposing that we see what experience only has shown us, or can show us, to have existence, constantly missing the sight of what we do not know beforehand to be visible: and painters, to the last hour of their lives, are apt to fall in some degree into the error of painting what exists, rather than what they can see.note114

Although Ruskin wrote that copying nature is a mistake, LaFarge points out that artists may try to copy nature without that concern, for an artist will always express himself in his work. There is no alternative, for according to LaFarge, it is impossible for the artist to exclude evidence of himself. It is acceptable to strive to be a realist, to try to copy nature, for the artist will always express himself in his work; no matter how hard the artist may try, the end result will never only duplicate nature. In an 1899 article, LaFarge further clarifies his difference with Ruskin on this point,

Nor, of course, can the end of art be untruth. Teachings like those of Mr. Ruskin...divide absolutely our art into two kinds -- those that give images of things just as they are, and those that give images of things just as they are not; such a dilemma as worries the child's mind.

"Things as they are" may mean so much as to be meaningless. If we mean things as they are in themselves, only God can so see them as to enclose them and leave nothing outside but falsehood. For us, we see but as in a mirror darkly. We have a few imperfect senses, and such moral faculties as we manage to distinguish the one from the other, and which we have to complete by making one act upon the others.note115


LaFarge wrote this concerning outline drawing,

What is astonishing is that the symbolical character of an outline drawing, -- the apparent necessity for a great effort towards condensation that it seems to require, its being in reality the representation of nature which is furthest removed from our actual sight, -- that this synthesis should not belong exclusively to late forms of art, to degrees of culture when taste has been refined to the point of appreciating the abstract delicacy of such a mode of representation. On the contrary, you see, it is the mode of art of the savage; it is the mode of art that children understand and first care for. Conventional art, which one would think ought to repel them, is, on the contrary, the most suggestive and the most delightful. It must then be that in a narrowerway, the entire mind of the child or the savage goes into the object to be represented; and that at once the main power which we have of accepting the illusions created by ourselves or others, is the means trusted to by man in his first attempts.note116

Recall LaFarge's comment about Homer at the American Institute of Architects dinner, "...the only man who has ever drawn exactly upon the lines of the dwellers with the cave-bear is a great American painter, as great as any in the world, Winslow Homer."note117

He continues,

It is evident that to fill in the empty spaces of such representations, our imagination is drawn upon, and thus to a certain extent it is our imagination that gives to this naked space, separated from the rest of space by a more or less continuous mark, those details that are wanting both in colour and in modelling.

You may remember how Lionardo [sic] recommends to the student to look for help in composition to the spottings and veinings of marble, the breaks and disintegration of old walls. Therein are to be found the form of landscapes, of mountains, and of buildings,and "whatever you are seeking to find."

I have not the passage at hand, and I cannot remember the quaint details of its language. And it is as he says; you have probably discovered these images yourselves, as you have seen dissolving views in the glow of the coals; and you have also, in looking at the glittering points of the stars of heaven, joined them together by lines which make traceable figures; you have gathered the constellations in the net of a geometry.note118

LaFarge encouraged artists to use their imagination, to look to the empty space to seek forms. An artist should not just paint empty space, which would then be "wanting," in need of something more, but should seek to recognize interesting forms as he paints the space. William Dean Howells regarded at least one sample of Homer's work to have this kind of suggestive quality. Homer did illustrations for Longfellow's poem "The Golden Milestone" which included illustrations for these two stanzas,

By the fireside there are old men seated,
Seeing ruined cities in the ashes,
Asking sadly
Of the Past what it can ne'er restore them.
By the fireside there are youthful dreamers,
Building castles fair, with stately stairways,
Asking blindly
Of the Future which it cannot give them.

Howells wrote, "Mr. Homer's pictures for 'The Golden Milestone' are good, and are full of the suggestiveness of the poem."note119

LaFarge's comment, in the next excerpt, regarding the painting of many things by a single one, the suggestion of things not there, of the recording of nature and the recording of the imagination, summarizes his ideas in this area,

We have passed already too far away from the first question of the rendering of many things by a single one, of the suggestion of things that are not there. Any artist who has kept many studies of his own will remember the manner in which we select out of some drawing certain lines, certain marks,--because it may be a drawing having more or less colour added to it or shade. We select out of the marks on the paper certain ones which bring back, by connection with memory, the entire picture which we saw at the time that we made it; whether those lines were records of nature or records of the imagination -- that is to say, of the intention of doing something.note120

When an artist paints nature, LaFarge expects both a record of what is from nature, and at the same time a record of what comes to the artist's mind in the process. Although what is seen has its origin in what exists, what the artist sees reflects, of necessity, memories of things seen and known before. Thus, recall that Bodmer's castles did not exist in fact, but existed in his mind at the time he painted them. The castles seen were however reflections of realities known before, memories of the past. Those particuliar rock formations were most interesting and selected precisely because of their relationship to memories of sight. LaFarge goes much further however, for he expects the artist to routinely see much more, even filling empty spaces. It is in this context that we should recall the advise Homer gave to James Kelly, when Winslow Homer suggested that Kelly "practice drawing old shoes and getting their character" as he pointed out "the different character and expressions in the various types of well-worn shoes."note121 The wrinkles in the leather of Homer's old shoes would have offered as much for the imagination as did the veinings in Leonardo daVinci's marble.

LaFarge expects a multiple representation, not only of the external objects which existed, but corresponding additional forms which exist in the mind of the artist. In order to do this "rendering of many things by a single one," visual symbols must convey multiple ideas of sight, in a manner analogous to how words carry multiple meaning for the poet. A painter, who does as LaFarge instructs, creates "a rendering of many things by a single one," suggests things that were not there, and could therefore be thought of as a visual "bard." To loosely paraphrase John Ciardi's comment about the poet, we might say: The visual-bard paints one thing while also painting something else. LaFarge expects this duplicity in great art, renderings which represent both the physical reality and the phenomenological reality of the artist's imagination. Recall also that it is the position of "radical empiricism" or" pragmatism" that both kinds of realities are equally real.


For LaFarge, looking at a work of art is not a passive activity, but one in which the viewer's imagination must participate. He takes the position that "the illusion suggested by the artist's work is directed by him but mostly made by us."note122 Our imagination is required for us to see what is intended, for what is drawn is always something less than complete. Our imagination allows us to connect the pieces into an integrated whole.

LaFarge's position is that we, the viewers, are not free to fancy anything we wish, but must work with our imagination to see what the artist has defined for us. Once we enter his "dreamland" our imagination works within the framework of the artist's work; we do not close our eyes to see with our imagination. What we imagine is still based on the lines and colors in the painting, the reality of the work of art. Read what LaFarge wrote regarding line drawings,

All that the draughtsman, in such a matter as rendering by outline can give, is the separation of a figure from the background. It is we who endow it with life and resemblance. It is our knowledge of the play of features that makes us see the movement of expression in a couple of lines of a caricaturist, and recognize a likeness in some few characteristics put together.

Yes, it is all very simple: a line or two on the paper, and the spectator sees his friend, or a great landscape is spread for him; the glories of sea and sky; the expression of feeling and of passion, the cadences of action. Yes, that would be easy, if anyone could see in it whatever he chose to. But the decision of the creator of the drawing is final. The variety of dreamland into which we enter depends on his manner of opening the gate. And the less he does, or rather appears to do, the more effort is required for all that we have to do. We scarcely wonder at it, and it is only in certain greater cases that we recognize, through our uplifting and exhilaration, how grand that simple effort may be.note123


LaFarge's previous material sets the stage for this lecture in which he relates his ideas about "difficulties that may stand in the way of appreciation."note124 LaFarge begins with a summary of what we have learned of his position. He then says, the artist must lead us in order that we may learn to recognize what was painted.

If, therefore, we cannot separate ourselves from what we see; if our energies are necessary to help the artist to impress us; if what he appeals to us about is not an actual sight, but merely our sight of our memories in it, so that we could not put these things to a man born blind on his first recovery of sight,note125 we know that it is because at least a great part of the influence exerted by the artist is the recall to our own experience of our own memory. We build upon that, and recognizing its conformity with that of the artist's memory, we trust him and continue beyond experience to whatever new sights he may wish to lead us among. But we must believe him first in the conformity with our own of these first memories of his which he offers us.note126

Thus, ignorance of the artist's memories, the failure to share common memories with the artist is a cause of misapprehension. If we do not share the artist's memories, we may fail to understand his work. Recall what William James said about shared symbols, minds meeting common objects.note127 We may be like the hypothetical Indian lacking experience with castles, for we may need "to trust him [the artist] and continue beyond [our own previous] experience to whatever new sights he may wish to lead us among." But even shared memories of sight may not be sufficient, for as LaFarge continued,

Now this is not equally possible for all; it will depend upon our sensitiveness, our capacities of all kinds. To some kinds of intellect certain contradictions to their memories of sight will be so important that those contradictions -- the deficiencies of the painter or artist, will prove insurmountable. The remainder of the illusion will not take place with them to a sufficient extent to move the entire mind. It may come from too much ignorance; it may come from too oppressive a knowledge of certain facts.note128

The viewer may lack sensitivity; or the viewer may oppress certain thoughts, perhaps as not real. We may, however, be unwilling to submit to what the artist presents to us, to be led by the artist. LaFarge continues after some examples of literature and sculpture.

If there can be all this difference of appreciation in such an art as realistic sculpture -- if I may use the term -- so near the actual form, so tangible, so much the thing itself that a sculptor can be blind, as you all have seen, and yet make a statue or image whose form at least, if not the appearance of its form, will be correct, -- how much more pardonable, will such deficiencies of sympathy appear to us in those who cannot enjoy the full illusion of painting, of drawing; of the more sublimated manners of art.

Any sort of knowledge (which is stored memory), any memory of training, any kind of prejudice, as we may define it, may stand in the way of appreciation.note129

Knowledge, training, prejudice, or any preconception may keep one from seeing. Those trained as art historians may have a more difficult time seeing something new, for they know so much, their mind may be working at full capacity, looking at what is expected, comparing and analyzing. Those who share an artist's vision and way of thinking, but know nothing of the mechanics of art, may perhaps have an easier time seeing, for they will be more sympathetic with the artist's intention. LaFarge continues,

We shall see the result of a sort of obsession in the intellect, like a hard deposit in a living body, prevent the free action of its energies, and arrest its acquirement of new sympathies. As in our studies and the records of the impression of nature upon us artists, in the things we do before new sights, in the notes we take of what is new to us, we are hampered (fortunately for our self-esteem, without knowing it frequently) by the habits of memory of the studio, by certain methods of painting or drawing (and of sight even, as I have shown you), which were invented and perfected for other sorts of sight and things, seen by others than ourselves, who taught them to us; or seen by ourselves, under conditions far removed in the past.note130

Continuing a bit further on,

The artist is he who, as I said when I defined art again, effects an intellectual connection with nature outside him; has accumulated memories of sight rarer than the common, and memories of their connections; and is open to new memories placed so suddenly with older ones that they look [to the viewernote131] like first apprehensions and reachings-out.note132

We may, at first, believe that what we see is our own projection, a reaching out, even when what we see is in fact a reading of what the artist has seen and painted, for LaFarge says that artists should "be open to new memories placed so suddenly with older ones that they look like first apprehensions and reachings-out." He continued,

But what appeal can there be to the man who has few memories of sight that are personal, few acquired through works of art?

Museums, collections of various kinds-- the looking at nature with the feeling that it can be rendered; the enjoyment of nature on account of art, and of art on account of nature; all this will tend to make a collection of memories and encourage the confidence in them, and prevent their being lost or displaced. For the child has often begun to collect impressions, and yet after a time loses those first memories of the pleasures of sight, as other memories of other things displace the less reasoned, less analyzed early impressions.

LaFarge's point is this. Children, precisely because what they see is less reasoned and less analyzed, have "first memories of the pleasure of sight" which may be more open to seeing things which may not belong. Children have less experience, hence less expectation when looking. Thus, while they do not have as large a selection of expected patterns which they may recognize, they are less influenced by expectations. William James makes note of this with regard to reading words, "Children, whose ideas are not yet ready enough to perceive words at a glance, read them wrong if they are printed wrong."note133 On the other hand, adults will often read the correct, intended, word not noticing that the word is actually misspelled. Children, therefore, may be more open to seeing things which adults may not see because of expectations. The perceptions of children are therefore less controlled by the expectations of reason and analysis.note134 The important point is that the memories of sight of children will actually be different than those of adults. The memories of sight of artists will be different than the general public. LaFarge concludes,

We can end by seeing how, still more than with the artists, the great public recognize slowly any new addition to the wealth of the world in the records of things seen, in the works of art that imply such records, be they of painting, of sculpture, or of the smaller arts of decoration, and finally why the mediocre and the plausible must always reign for a time.note135

Acceptance of the new by the public will be slow, not because the public would not go along, but because the public will not be able to see what the artist saw. Popular works will lose their significance, while the greatest works will become increasingly appreciated. Precisely because the greatest works contain so much that is new and unique, which is what makes them great, and as a necessary consequence of that qualifying fact that they have so much to offer, they will not be fully appreciated for a long time.

After discussing the limitations of some works "inflated with the wind of popular favour" he continues,

These examples represent an average perception and reflect average personal likings of a moment; but as soon as something more has been acquired and expressed, then we see all there is in them, and are shocked at coming to the end of a world; since it must then be unlike the real one which it represents; for the real one has always more to give to our inquiry or appreciation. And yet even there, with certain minds (so true is the definition that we make the value of the work of art), we shall detect their delight in feeling assured that there is nothing more, that they know every bit of it, and can name all that is there.

Offensive to them must be the work of art, the man, the kind of view of any truth, which cannot easily beheld in a short formula, which has any impression of superiority -- and escapes their grasp.

Some of us dislike, some of us fear, all of us are at least chary, of what cannot as yet be catalogued and stamped with a trade-mark.

Balzac had a motto: "Comprendrec'est pardonner "note136; and, to a certain extent, I hope that this analysis of the reasons for dissenting from admiration and enjoyment of certain works of art, will make you, my students, pause a moment before resenting. Patience -- long-suffering, has always been the badge of those really favoured by Minerva; and one of the earliest of great artists in words has shown what she did for Ulysses; and how she brought him home at last, and placed him on the throne that belonged to him.note137

LaFarge summarizes his position,

A man giving even what all expect, sometimes goes very far beyond, and his own record of memories will only be understood as other people's memories accumulate. He will be a constant reminder of there being something more. Little by little, other recorders will make notes that will sustain and justify his; his necessary deficiencies, his necessary exaggerations, will no longer surprise. We shall pass over the bridge to a new land, and thank him whom we doubted at first. It may take a long time; other roads may have been travelled meanwhile, by other explorers whom we notice and whose memories we enjoy; so that Donatello may come fresh to us after several centuries. The Rembrandts, which we recognize as so mighty to-day, whose possession represents so much money, were to be had, even when his name and fame was known, for less than you, my pupils, would accept to-day for any study of yours."note138

It would have been pointless for LaFarge to have provided a detailed explanation to the public why he believed Homer's work to be so great, for it was his view that great art must be appreciated over time.

What we have found in LaFarge's lectures provides a better basis for understanding what LaFarge thought about his friend Winslow Homer. We may better understand the implications of the sentence which concluded his letter to Kobbe,

"I am so convinced of the future importance of our late friend."

We may also better understand what LaFarge meant when he wrote

"nor do I know exactly the degree of appreciation which met him from Americans."


We have seen that Abbey and LaFarge (artists closest to Homer's personal life) and Homer himself (through Beatty) present evidence indicating an incomplete public understanding of Homer's art. We have gained some insight into the personalities of Homer and some of his friends. We have seen that Homer insisted upon keeping "the most interesting part" of his life private, while, at the same time, his art was described not only as "intensely American" but also "intensely personal." We have a better idea of what LaFarge meant in his letter to Kobbe.

We have more understanding of what LaFarge implies when he speaks of "appreciation." We have seen, from statements over a dozen years, that LaFarge clearly regarded Homer to be a great artist. We have seen that LaFarge expects a limited public understanding to be a consequence of greatness, for by his definition great art will not be fully comprehended in the artist's lifetime. If we are to understand Homer's work from LaFarge's perspective, a great artist's work in LaFarge's own words, we must obtain as many common memories with Homer as possible. We must learn to look at apparent deficiencies and exaggerations in the art, not to criticize, but as possible clues which may help guide us to see what is intended, to try to see "the rendering of many things by a single one, of the suggestion of things that are not there." We must learn to open ourselves to new sympathies, to keep an open mind and not be prejudiced by our knowledge. As we begin to see what the artist intended, little by little, we must allow ourselves to be led by the artist. Each painted memory of the artist, once we see it, becomes our own new memory, a new shared experience inside the artist's personal world, the requisite common experience of "pragmatism," a stepping stone toward understanding. If we follow LaFarge's direction, we may expect to learn to see more of what Homer saw, and to see as he did.