Terrific painting on this week's cover of JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). Yes, I do have a job! JAMA covers have traditionally been works of art for as long as I've been a medical librarian. This one - Winslow Homer's An October Day really grabbed my attention today...it reminds me of the day we're having here - the first cold snap of the season happened over night. Thought I'd share both the picture and the commentary that comes with it.
To hasty readers or hurried museum visitors, as they rush past the jumble of blues and yellows known as An October Day (cover), it may seem that they have glimpsed yet another of the myriad Impressionist works of the 19th century, albeit not one easily pulled from memory. Monet? Perhaps: something between his yellow haystacks and his ghostly cathedrals, vaguely between sunshine and fog, a landscape image, light-filled, sparkling, ephemeral, timeless, passing. And, a painting most certainly beautiful. An attentive pause, even the briefest, might reveal the transected yellow verticals to be trees that are shedding (unleaving, as Gerard Manley Hopkins would say). A longer pause might even evoke a distant echo of the Bard: "[ . . . ] yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,/Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang." (Sonnet 73)
But of course, the painting is not a Monet, nor is it even a work by any of his colleagues, nor is it even French, or an oil. It is American, a watercolor as delicate as a mountain breeze, yet a plain-spoken, unsentimental comment on the realities of life and death. In the midst of a beauty and grandeur that is beyond words to describe, a deer swims for its life; at the left, hidden among the shadows and reflections, is a hunter about to shoulder his rifle. Disarmingly titled An October Day, it is one of nearly 90 watercolors Winslow Homer (1836-1910) executed over a period of 20 years during numerous painting and fishing vacations in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.
Many of the works in the series portray deer-hunting, which in the late 19th century was more for purposes of "putting food on the table" than for sport. Homer is neither sentimental nor romantic; he is a realist and that is moral enough. He pictured all aspects of the hunt, from stalking to kill, including the even then controversial method of "hounding." Dogs were loosed to pick up the deer track, whereupon the pursued deer often took to one of the numerous lakes in the mountain wilderness where its scent would be lost. Ironically, the fleeing deer then became easy prey to the hunter. It is probably just such an episode that is portrayed in An October Day.
In 1889, when Homer painted An October Day, he was at the height of his powers, easily considered to be America's best watercolorist. Gone were the subjects of the earlier years, of children, beaches and sand pails, country schoolyards, red one-room schools, rowdy boys, prim but charming teachers—even the soldiers he had pictured at the front during the Civil War. They had been but prelude to the future. Whether oil or watercolor, seascape or landscape, Homer's later paintings had but a single theme: mortality and the struggle for survival against the forces that control it. His subjects became metaphors for the struggle among the mostly unequal forces of nature, whether between humans and animals or humans and the elements or, ultimately, against Nature herself.
Although Homer lived a secluded life in Prout's Neck for nearly three decades, he was by no means a recluse. An avid outdoorsman, he went almost every year if not to the Adirondacks then to Quebec, Bermuda, Florida, or the Bahamas to indulge his two passions: fishing and painting. If financial success seems to have eluded him, then neither did he seem to be especially troubled by its absence. His was the satisfaction of knowing that museums and other public collections owned more of his work than that of any other artist then living.
Homer died at his studio in Prout's Neck on September 30, 1910. He was 74 and had last visited the Adirondacks just months earlier. He had indeed loved well that which too soon he left.
M. Therese Southgate, MD
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