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Art Review : Huntington Show: Last Time To Call On Homer?

July 30, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Staff Writer

There's no consoling the Winslow Homer devotees who missed the exhibition of his watercolors in Washington and Fort Worth and can't go to Yale University for its final showing (Sept. 11 to Nov. 2), but here's my best suggestion: See "American Drawings and Watercolors," the first installment of works from the Carnegie Institute's collection, at the Huntington's Virginia Steele Scott Gallery (to Aug. 17).

This isn't a Homer show, but five of his gentle watercolors and drawings lead the lineup of 19th-Century art. Homer deserves this place of honor, for "Figures on the Coast"--a loosely drawn depiction of cranberry pickers huddled over their labor--was the first work in the Carnegie's drawing collection. He also launched the institute's painting collection, with the acquisition of "The Wreck."

At the Huntington, we find Homer pursuing this favored theme in "A Wreck Near Gloucester." The drama of a sailing vessel's crash is past in this somber brown watercolor; tiny figures struggle to unload its cargo amid the crushing weight of a maritime disaster.

Another watercolor, "Watching From the Cliffs," looks way up to observe three women and a child on a cliff-top vantage point, inviting you to construct your own narrative about the object of their attention.

This moody, atmospheric side of Homer is balanced by a relatively stiff illustration, "Pumpkins Among the Corn." It's an abrupt switch of sensibility, but the two sides of Homer reflect opposing aspects of the Carnegie's collection.

Selected by John Beatty, the Carnegie's first director of fine arts, and art historian Sadakichi Hartmann, the collection of 19th-Century American drawings concentrates on two kinds of draftsmanship: illustration and what the catalogue calls "poetic evocation."

An odd pairing? Not in the light of historical context. America's illustrated magazines actually encouraged superior draftsmanship in the 1880s and 1890s, and provided an income for artists as gifted as Frederic Remington, Thomas Moran, John La Farge and William Glackens.

Homer had to break away from illustration to realize his potential. Other artists chafed under the strictures of the publishing world, making a distinction between their magazine work and their fine art, but few would deny the importance of the exposure--or the financial support.

Remington, for one, earned more from reproduction fees than from the sale of his actual drawings. Two exhibited works, done for the Century magazine, demonstrate his romance with Western manhood.

That the magazines commissioned some excellent work is clear in the exhibition. Glackens, who got his start as a newspaper artist-reporter and eventually renounced illustration for painting, has sharpened his eye for turn-of-the-century urban life in a mixed-media work called "In Town It's Different." Here he presents a bird's-eye view of crosscurrents of old and young, poverty and riches as they collide in the city.

Moran's "North Park" typifies his enchantment with Western landscape in a romantic view of flat-topped rock formations along the Colorado River. John White Alexander's charcoal portrait of Victorian author Frank Stockton, commissioned by the Century to illustrate a biographical essay, is a convincing character study.

Among sheets grouped together as "Early American Drawings and the Hudson River School" is Eastman Johnson's wonderfully sensitive portrait "My Jew Boy." Apparently drawing his servant, Johnson used such a light touch that the young man seems evanescent.

This work could as easily be displayed in the "Evocation and Impressionism" section, where you find the likes of John H. Twachtman and Frederick Childe Hassam speaking in telling whispers.

Thomas Wilmer Dewing, known as a purveyor of ideal womanhood, takes poetic suggestion to the hilt in his silverpoint drawing "Head of a Girl." The softly modeled head emerges like a ghostly presence, hinting that the body will be along soon if only you are patient.

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1895 established the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. "Using techniques similar to those that had brought him economic success, he sought to create a cultural conglomerate analogous to the industrial conglomerates he had built up in the steel industry," Henry Adams writes in the catalogue. The Carnegie's art gallery was only one component of a complex that also includes a library, music hall and natural history museum.

Carnegie himself claimed no art expertise and did not direct purchases. With a nationalistic vision and a sense of obligation to Pittsburgh's working-class population, he hired local artist John Beatty to guide the institute's visual arts pursuits along a pathway to American glory.

Among many other activities, Beatty determined to build a collection of drawings because "they bring us closer to the creative artist, and give us a more intimate understanding of the art of the painter, than perhaps any other medium of expression."

With Hartmann as consultant and finder, he amassed a remarkable cache of about 200 19th-Century drawings and watercolors. Looking backward and ignoring the inexorable force of Modernism, Beatty led the conservative institute well into the 20th Century.

After he retired in 1922 (and the institute's funds dwindled), his successor, Homer St. Gaudens, abandoned the collection. Activity finally picked up again in the '50s, when Gordon Bailey Washburn became director and put Leon Arkus in charge of prints and drawings.

The result was a new collection of 20th-Century American drawings and watercolors, which will go on view at the Huntington's Scott Gallery from Aug. 31 to Sept. 28.

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