Whether as prelude to his masterpieces in oil or in themselves, Winslow Homer's early illustrations fascinate. | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Whether as prelude to his masterpieces in oil or in themselves, Winslow Homer's early illustrations fascinate.

Winslow Homer is renowned for his virtuoso depictions of turbulent waters and skies, seascapes and pastoral scenes. Less well known is that until around 1875, Homer worked as a commercial illustrator, creating an estimated 250 wood engravings for various publications. Winslow Homer: The Illustrator, at the Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts, includes 34 engravings and four etchings selected from holdings of the Butler Museum of American art. 

The strength of Homer's illustrations lies in his ability to show figures in action, and in his active and vibrant compositions. This is exemplified in "Home From War," published in Harper's Weekly in 1863, depicting an atypically closely cropped crowd of soldiers and their families reconnecting; the image teems with movement, from the swirling lines in a woman's full skirts to the sweeping arm gestures of a wife reaching for her husband's arm. The scene's chaotic excitement is palpable. 

Homer (1836-1910), born in Boston, is considered mostly a self-taught artist, although he did apprentice with a commercial lithographer and took life-drawing classes in New York City. There, he illustrated for publications such as Harper's, Appleton's and Every Saturday. A few prints at the Hoyt are displayed alongside photocopies of the periodical page on which they originally appeared. 

Adding pictures to mass-produced publications was a relatively new technology when Homer began working as an illustrator; the practice dates to 1842, in London. Homer completed his apprenticeship in 1857 and was immediately hired to illustrate Ballou's Drawing-Room Companion, of Boston. 

Homer's subjects range widely: scenes of upper-class leisure in natural and urban settings; representations of the Industrial Revolution; rural scenes; and striking images of the American Civil War, during which Homer was an artist correspondent for Harper's. On view are images like "Skating on the Ladies' Skating Pond in the Central Park, NY" and "Waiting for a Bite," in which three children sit on a fallen tree with their fishing rods. Contrasting such agreeable tableaux are "The War for the Union -- A Cavalry Charge" and "The War for the Union -- A Bayonet Charge," both from 1862, depicting graphic scenes from the battlefield. 

Homer reworked some of his illustrations into paintings, including one of his best-remembered images, "Sharpshooter Army of the Potomac -- A Sharpshooter on the Picket Duty" (1862), that became one of his first oils. In the illustration, a bird's-eye angle shows the concentrated sharpshooter surreptitiously, and awkwardly, perched on a tree limb.

Yet some of Homer's most poignant war engravings show "behind-the-scenes" images like "Thanksgiving Day in the Army, After Dinner -- The Wishbone." In it, two soldiers sit together on a fallen log after an improvised "feast," about to ritually break the wishbone. Another soldier stands eagerly awaiting the outcome -- all seemingly having forgotten the war around them, however briefly.

In such images, Homer humanized the war, providing the public an intimate view of the soldiers' lives and of events as they unfolded; collectively, they're among the best historical records of the war. And even separated from their original manifestation as accompaniments to text, they're fascinating now as they would have been in the 19th century. 


Winslow Homer: The Illustrator continues through Feb. 29. Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts, 124 E. Leasure Ave., New Castle. 724-652-2882 or www.hoytartcenter.org