After almost a year in France, following his experience as an artist correspondent for Harper’s Weekly during the American Civil War (1861-1865), Winslow Homer returned to New York to begin a series of paintings and drawings reflective of a more tranquil and idyllic view of the America he loved.  Homer’s wood engravings were very popular, both during and after the war, and, though his most closely-held ambition was to be taken seriously as a painter, he steadily produced a number of prints for various publications throughout the late 1860’s and early 1870’s. Homer was an amazing draftsman. Before handing over the blocks of wood to a specialist artisan for engraving, Homer took full advantage of the engraving medium’s excellent tonal range when drawing on the block. This is evident in the exemplary print from June of 1870, The Dinner Horn.

Dinner Horn.Winslow Homer

The Dinner Horn
Winslow Homer (1836-1910), American
Wood Engraving

The setting is a variant of one of Homer’s reoccurring themes: the solitary woman, alone or with others, seen in a moment of time. The woman in The Dinner Horn is calling the workers from the distant fields, a herald of the noon meal. Her youthful figure is subtly revealed as the wind catches her checkered dress in a billowy sweep over the outline of her body. Homer makes use of shape-repetition in several areas of the composition: the angle of the slat-board house, the wash-pans leaning against the wall and even the pattern of the woman’s dress and hairnet. The overall composition is all angles and curves with the arm, lifting the horn, echoed by the rod mechanism used to retrieve water from the box-shaped well. And with so much movement to direct our attention, Homer provides a lyrical counterpoint by adding a sweep of ivy winding its way into the composition to soften the severity of the roof line while leading the viewer’s eye back to the woman in her daily service to the workers. This softening of line repeats in several areas, particularly in the body of the cat, as it eases its back against the frame of the door.

The Dinner Horn provided a familiar experience for Harper’s rural readers, while, at the same time, reinforcing a comforting view of country life for city folk of New York. Addressing such themes only increased Homer’s popularity. Unfortunately, his paintings waited years to receive the same public attention. It is quite possible Homer considered the act of illustration as a prelude to his paintings – several painted versions of The Dinner Horn exist. All are wonderful in their own way but few have the compact and animated power of the drawing. The popularity and financial success of Homer’s wood engravings, however, did enable him to retire from illustration. His last work for Harper’s came in 1875.  Moving to Prouts Neck, Maine, in 1883, Homer began a series of watercolors and oils that forever define him as a major contributor to development of American art.

Posted by theunintendedcurator

My name is Bob Nowalk. I teach at Culver Academies, a college preparatory boarding school in Culver Indiana. Since 2001, I have been working with the Academy's Art Collection and Galleries to connect the process of learning with works of art. Several of my students suggested creating a blog to further share the stories we discover about art, artists, and the creative process. Thanks for visiting.

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