Winslow Homer's Empire State: Three summers at Houghton Farm were pivotal

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 08/27/09More articles
“He’d been painting farms for years,” David Tatham said. “But none of the labors of the farm are taking place here, in these pictures. He was re-inventing himself as an artist. In these three crucial summers his output was phenomenal – 150 works – it’s really the last unexplained period of his career. These shepherdesses are from an alternative universe. If this is the iconic painting in this group, the only possible reality is that tree on the ridge.”

Tatham gestured at the large reproduction of “Shepherdesses Resting” that greets visitors to the new Winslow Homer exhibition at SUArt Galleries, an image also on the catalogue cover and offered in the Gallery shop as a print. Homer’s watercolor depicts two women in gauzy white dresses, straw bonnets and – deftly outlined in graphite – high-heeled ladies’ shoes, lounging and chatting in the meadow; a third on the hillside raises her shepherd’s crook to them near a line of grazing sheep as a couple birds wheel overhead in a summer sky. Not your usual sweaty workers, nothing indicates they’re populating one of the first “modern” agricultural research stations in the country either.

The three quiches and the fresh fruit platters stood largely untouched the morning that SUArts hosted a press preview of this year’s major campus art exhibition. American painter Winslow Homer’s pivotal three summers at mid-life on an upstate experimental farm is the follow-up to last year’s Michelangelo extravaganza. This opening may have had less glitz and fanfare, but SU’s own David Tatham, fine arts professor and former dean, has been a passionate Homer scholar for decades. Author of several books on Homer – including SU Press’ "Winslow Homer in the Adirondacks" (1996) and "Winslow Homer and the Pictorial Press" (2003) – and a number of major essays, Tatham approached SUArts in March of 2006 to suggest this show and serves as its guest curator.

Houghton Farm was the project of Homer’s friend and patron Lawson Valentine – Homer’s older brother Charles was a chemist who developed paints and varnishes for Lawson’s successful business (which still survives as ValSpar) – a tract of 1,000 acres, a two-hour train ride 50 miles north of Manhattan, near West Point. The NYS Thruway runs right through the middle today, but from 1877-79, Homer visited and began, as Tatham explained to us last Monday morning, “to make imaginative images, and in many ways he chose not to acknowledge the modernity that was going on all around him at the farm.”

Tatham argues in his catalogue essay that to really understand what Homer was up to at Houghton Farm, you have to see what Valentine was up to as well – and what Homer left out. Houghton Farm buzzed with experimental projects of the type that only a few years later would be established nationally in land-grant and other colleges (in Central New York, at Cornell). As one of the great realist artists of the US on his time, the New York City-based Homer had illustrated periodical magazines such as "Harper’s Weekly," been among the first “embedded reporters” to travel with Union troops and cover the Civil War (despite a wonderful selection, the Gallery shop unfortunately doesn’t carry one of my favorite Homer books, Wood and Dalton’s "Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years," 1988), made natural paintings from upstate New York, Maine’s coast and later the Caribbean, and represented the youth-oriented, agrarian optimism of a nation that survived the Civil War.

By the 1870’s however, Homer faced a new market and the country faced political scandals and an economic depression that for artists forced the need to consider other, more saleable mediums such as, for Homer from 1874, watercolors over oil paintings. What made Homer quintessentially “American” – in the face of a new interest in European art with its Aesthetic Movement – now made him, Tatham says, provincial.

The SUArt Galleries exhibition offers 27 works from Houghton Farm in what director Dominic Iacono calls the “inner sanctum” – the two small back rooms – though to properly get there, first go through the outer galleries, whose rooms are set up to form a timeline of Homer’s career, with examples (some in reproduction, such as the breath-taking, nearly abstract “The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog”), photos and supporting wall texts. There’s substantial attention to the pictorial press, including Homer’s work alongside a number of his contemporaries, and tucked behind all this in two even smaller rooms are works by other contemporaries, which you might miss if you didn’t know they’re there. Many of these works come from SU’s own collection – a stunning example of what resources a university can bring to bear for such an exhibition. In the screening room, the National Gallery of Art’s 29-minute “Winslow Homer: The Nature of the Artist,” plays in continuous loop during gallery hours.

Make sure you set aside a couple hours for this one. It’s a labor of love.

This article appears in the August 27, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on page 1. “Winslow Homer’s Empire State: Houghton Farm and Beyond” opened on August 20 at SUArts in Syracuse University’s Shaffer Art Building as part of Th3, Syracuse’s monthly citywide art night, and is on view until October 11 (a smaller version of the exhibition will be on view at the Louise and Bernard Palitz Gallery at SU’s Lubin House in New York City from November 9 - December 6).

SU also hosts a symposium, “Winslow Homer in the 1870s: A Time of Crisis in American Culture,” on campus September 25 – 26. National scholars of Homer’s work will explore the decade in US history during which dramatic changes in art and culture occurred as Reconstruction ended and the country struggled under a major economic depression. This includes events and material designed for high school students, talks and performances. More information at

Gallery hours: Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 – 4:30 and Thursdays 11 – 8. SUArt Galleries is an accessible facility. Free daily guided tour of about 45 minutes at 1 PM and on Thursdays again at 6 PM. Free parking weekends and evenings at the Q4 lot on College Place 9except during Carrier Dome events). The free Connective Corridor shuttle (Centro Route #543) also gets you there. The Gallery shop offers the exhibition catalogue, prints and other books about Homer.

Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

TAGS: Winslow Homer, David Tatham, Syracuse University, SUArts, Houghton Farm
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 3.1/5 (18 votes cast)

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