The rose discarded
by Paul Smart
May 20, 2010 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A plaque along the rail trail running parallel to Route 209 in Hurley notes how the great American artist Winslow Homer spent a series of summers in the 1870s sketching and painting in our area. In the nearby hamlet, out in the muddy fields stretching back across the Esopus Creek to the sharp rise of the Catskills towards where the Ashokan Reservoir now sits, one gets a sense of wide promise, as well as a shiver of chill coming in from the high ground. It's a place of promise and change, where memories seem to touch the back of one's neck - not unlike the way one feels looking from rocky cliffs out to the vast expanse of the ocean, only with more presence to the mountains behind, rather than the racing clouds overhead. It is a landscape that summons roiled emotions.

Research places a flurry of great artworks - drawings, prints and paintings - to the self-taught, Boston-born Winslow Homer's time in the middle of Ulster County. Included amongst the many drawings and paintings sourced to his stays in Hurley, it turns out, are the famed image of one-room-school life, Snap the Whip, in which a group of barefoot boys frolics in a schoolhouse field backed by softly rising hills and mountains, as well as a host of further school images overseen by a pretty teacher - sometimes looking lost in daydreams and at other times almost despondent, as if something in her life has been lost.

That schoolhouse, Hurley historian Deana Decker noted in her history of the town last year, is still in existence on Hurley Mountain Road, at the foot of Eagle's Nest Road. "According to information I have in the Historian's Office, Homer painted scenes of Hurley from 1870 to 1875," Decker noted in response to inquiries in recent weeks. "Most of the paintings and engravings focus on a local schoolteacher whom he apparently met at Long Beach, New Jersey in 1869. I do not know if the woman has ever been identified. The last painting of her was done in 1875, called Shall I Tell Your Fortune?"

Homer's artwork of the early 1870s - after years as one of the nation's most popular illustrators capturing the feel of military camps during the Civil War for Harper's Weekly, then leisure activities of the upper crust along the coast of New Jersey and the White Mountains - helped cement his reputation as a painter of note. And unlike many who had come before him in the Hudson River School, his popularity was based on a new Naturalism that captured our nation returning to post-war normalcy as a society of small-town values, of childhood yearnings and adult regrets.

He had come to Ulster County the same year that he opened a new studio in the same New York City location where all the leading artists of the day resided, including the likes of Frederic Church and William Merritt Chase. According to record, he traveled north alongside his friend, fellow artist Enoch Wood Perry.

Almost immediately, his Hurley works, which started being shown in the year following his first summer stay in the former Dutch village, would be seen as documents capturing the fading quality of life just before industrialization changed our nation and world forever.

During his time in our midst, Homer conjured up a host of works that captured a homespun American feminine beauty as rare and treasured today as his school works, or all those great Civil War camp illustrations, Adirondacks and White Mountain wilderness images and emotionally charged looks into Southern black life and the wildly dramatic seascapes of his later years.

"While in Hurley, Homer stayed in the Houghtaling House on Old Route 209," added Decker about the famous painter's local sojourn. "It is believed that this woman was the love of Homer's life, and the relationship may have ended because the man felt he could not support a wife on his income, or she gave up because he would not marry her."

Asked about her sources, Decker noted two books, The Love Affair of Winslow Homer and Winslow Homer: a Portrait by Jean Gould from 1962, a 1944 biography by Lloyd Goodrich and the 1911 Life and Works of Winslow Homer by William Howe Downes, an acquaintance of the painter in his final years. Looking through each, as well as a host of more recent years' investigations into the notoriously private artist's personal life, none matches what seems to signal a truth about the sad engines that drove this great artist's life, and changed his course from his Hurley years forward. And yet in each and all explanations of what drove his works in Hurley (and later Greene County's Palenville and Catskill, and finally Orange County's Mountainville area, on properties now part of the Storm King Art Center's world-famous sculpture park) are hints at the ways in which human frailties and fears can inevitably shift the direction of a nation's cultural scene - both on an aesthetic level, via Homer's own work, and with regard to the manner in which art gets taught and bought, via the separate history of at least one woman said to have been his intended paramour of the time.

Homer, who came up in the world of lithography, the graphics monster of the day, learned his chops at fast-paced editorial illustration. He mastered his craft quickly, kept up with a mess of deadlines and started finding more personal items to convey in his work than his Civil War experiments. In the late 1860s, Homer spent a year in France, where he came under the sway of the Barbizon School painters, who led the way into Impressionism and brought new focus to the moody beauties of everyday life and all classes of society. He returned to the United States, quit his work as a deadline-oriented illustrator and started a more idiosyncratic focus in his paintings: lone women on horses in mountains; painters painting. He was invited to join the American Academy. Meanwhile, his style began to grow looser.

For a while, Homer taught classes on the side, started mixing with a heady new crowd of American intellectuals who included the likes of Henry and William James, the emerging novelist and philosopher. According to recent research published in Smithsonian Magazine, Homer became close with a younger painter, Charles de Kay, who housesat his studio.

De Kay was from an old New York family with Old World ties who were close with the Jameses, the Oliver Wendell Holmes clan and others among the nation's rising cultural elite. He also had a young sister, Helena, who was started studying art at Cooper Union and came to Homer for private lessons with a friend, who would later become a noted artist herself.

"Miss Helena, If you would like to see a large drawing on wood, and will come to my studio on Monday or Tuesday, I shall have a chance to see you," Homer wrote de Kay after a few classes in the late 1860s, when the only student he ever took on as a solo charge chose to study elsewhere. "Dear Miss Helena, You know you were to let me know when it would be agreeable for me to call at your studio," he wrote a few months later. "Having no word from you I suppose you have made other arrangements."

Time started to pass, with Helena de Kay becoming a highlight of New York's social life of the time. Homer was starting to make more and more small trips out of town, looking for locations in which to base his popular new rural works, and becoming even more productive than usual as a result. His palette began to grow somewhat darker, his compositions more tense with opposing elements. Schoolrooms betrayed loneliness and yearning. Schoolteachers seemed distant, lost in their own thoughts, while still hopelessly beautiful.

"My work this winter will be good or very bad," came another letter to Helena de Kay. "The good work will depend on your coming to see me once a month - at least - Is this asking too much? Truly yours, Winslow Homer."

It was in June 1872 that Homer decided to take a month in Hurley with his friend Perry. On leaving, he sent another letter. "My dear Miss Helena, Enclosed find photos which are a failure," he wrote of some sketches of Miss de Kay that he sent to her. "I keep one for company this summer. You may think it will be dull music with so faint a resemblance and so dolorous but it's like a Beethoven symphony to me, as any remembrance of you will always be."

During his time upstate - which seems to have stretched beyond the month for which he had planned - he learned that de Kay's best friend, Mary Hallock, was staying at a family home in Milton. Helena herself, he discovered, was also to be visiting a second home that her family kept in Palenville, which he seems to have passed through regularly to make several paintings and woodcuts for a series of Harper's Magazine assignments picked up despite his stated retirement from illustration work. Quietly, Homer seems to have somehow received invitations at least to visit with his adored at several points during that summer - which would have meant overnights somewhere in the area.

"What an advantage to have Winslow Homer around!" Halleck wrote de Kay at one point. "You'll pick up ever so many crumbs of wisdom. I do think his pictures are very masterly looking and never trivial or 'pretty.'"

Meanwhile, de Kay's face and profile started showing up in paintings - as a teacher, as the yearning girl in several pastorals, in a series of illustrations that he did on the theme of courtship. There's a hopeful beauty to her image in all cases, but also a growing wistfulness on Homer's part, as if he realizes that he can never actually attain his Muse.

Homer, meanwhile, was recorded having stayed at a farm in the Greene County mountaintop area that would later house the famed Onteora Club, as well as at the Catskill Mountain House, above Kaaterskill Falls. He also visited the home and studio of Benjamin B. G. Stone, a Hudson River School painter (whose works are showing this summer at the Beatty-Powers House, owned by the Village of Catskill). It would be surprising for him not to have also visited his fellow Tenth Street Studios artist, Frederic Church and his young family, across the river from Catskill at his newly finished home, Olana.

By the fall of 1872, the painter was back in New York, furiously finishing many of the works started the previous summer, when his friend Helena started seeing the young, debonair poet and Scribner's' editor Richard Watson Gilder. Where Homer was untalkative and brooding, known for getting snippy in public discourse, Gilder was talkative, like her, and loved nights out in society. Where Gilder was known for his full head of hair and well-dressed manner of commanding attention wherever he went, Homer - though debonair in his choice of clothes - was short, balding and the sort who, unless noticed, was said to get lost in a crowd.

"Go and see your clever picture," Homer wrote her that winter, of another work that he had completed based on her image during a time when she seems to have begun taking classes with someone else in his same building. "It was painted for you to look at."

Something had shifted in Homer's outlook, according to the letters uncovered in the years since earlier talk of a relationship with a New Jersey or maybe even upstate schoolteacher had surfaced. And after the joy of Snap the Whip and The Nooning and other early Hurley works, a new pensiveness entered his school works. For a while, though, the moods alternated, with some works summery and light-paletted and others more brooding.

A few weeks after Homer admonished de Kay to stop by his studio, he softened in a follow-up letter. "If you would like to give your mother a Christmas present of that sketch I painted from you I will give it to you with pleasure," he noted in a holiday-season missive. "Why don't you limp into my studio on your way up or down and take it? I am very jolly, no more long faces. It is not all wrong."

By the spring, de Kay was inviting Homer to meet Gilder at her own new studio a few blocks north of Homer's. But Winslow apparently couldn't bring himself to go. "I must refuse your invitation for Sunday. Will you pardon me?" he wrote her, announcing that he was going to try his luck in a new locale over the coming summer: the rugged coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. "If I expect to do anything this summer I must not lose any more time and patience in New York... I shall paint for your approval."

A few weeks later, he still hadn't left for the sea, claiming a hand injury, although it seems that he returned for some brief sojourns to Hurley in the meanwhile - gathering the backdrops for his works started and based there, it is said, and likely recapturing and deepening the emotional resonance that he was instilling in each piece.

Helena sent him one of her paintings of flowers. He quickly replied. "My dear Miss Helena, I have just found your picture. I think it very fine," he wrote. "As a picture I mean, not because, et cetera. I thought of you once today and picked out a little girl (one of about 50) as looking as you perhaps looked - She could outrun all the others, and gave the teacher the most trouble - and I doubt if she went to Sunday school, but she was nice."

By the sea, Homer lost himself in a series of new watercolors of boys playing in the sea; a few of young ladies flirting with young men. There's a surface wistfulness to all, and yet something slightly melancholic about each, once turned away from and remembered. They signal a shift in his work. The vast distances of the ocean seem to be beckoning him.

By the time he returned to New York, Richard and Helena's whirlwind romance was all the talk of the art world. By the winter, de Kay's engagement to Gilder was announced in the papers. Helena and Richard's marriage took place in early June 1874.

Homer again went upstate for quick visits, sharing Stone's studio for spells in Catskill and completing a new masterwork of the famous falls that Cole and others had made famous, since lost. But more time was spent in the Adirondacks, where he hiked and fished and hunted with his older brother Charles. He returned to the sea in Gloucester, capturing lone men in skiffs battling high winds and waves.

By 1875, Homer was spending time back where he'd been during the Civil War, starting and completing a series of controversial paintings of black Americans in the post-slavery south. He started a series of works about courtship - idealized on the one hand, yet filled with lonely gestures, faraway looks beyond the love and lust of the captured moments.

For the nation's Centennial, Winslow Homer's Snap the Whip was shown to much acclaim in Philadelphia, then reprinted in magazines and prints. "We frankly confess that we detest his subjects," the Gilders' friend Henry James wrote in a piece. "He has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial...and, to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded."

By the summer of 1877, Homer started spending time at the farm of his chemist brother Charles's business partner in the paints-and-varnish trade, Lawson Valentine (of what became the Valspar Corporation), in the Orange County community of Mountainville. He hired local farmhands and washerwomen to model for him and was noted for having allowed his conception of human beauty to become more "common." In his personal life, people noticed that the now-famous artist was becoming ever more hermetic, aloof.

Homer painted a few more images with traces of Helena de Kay's resemblance. At one point, he sent his beloved and her husband a portrait that he had done of her in which she's looking down, as if in mourning. It's a powerful, sullen, heartbreaking piece. It's believed to have been painted just after his time in Hurley, when he may have realized that all he'd hoped and dreamed of with her was not possible. On the floor beside her, in the portrait, is a discarded rose.

In 1880, Homer moved to a fishing village in England and worked a series of paintings of lower-class fisherfolk's lives and the sea that drew and repelled them. He began to shift to the quickness and impressionistic attention to moody detail implicit in the watercolors that he started favoring at the time. On returning to the States in 1883, he moved with his family to a remote compound on the coast of Maine that Charles had bought. He stopped painting society women, focusing on people facing the elements or at work.

Helena de Kay Gilder, meanwhile, became known for her paintings of flowers. She and her husband started the Society of American Artists to counter the National Academy of Design, eventually pushing it into its enduring form as the Arts Students' League, which founded an upstate branch in Woodstock, halfway between Hurley and Palenville, in the early years of the 20th century. Eventually, a group of ten artists - many directly influenced - broke off from the SAA to start their own Group of Ten, and the Society folded. Homer declined to join any such groups and societies when asked.

Over time, his works grew darker, more primal in their force. He'd take visits to the Florida Keys and the Bahamas, but return with works of raging seas or desperate loneliness. He stayed away from cities except for the monthly suit of clothes that he had sent him from Brooks Brothers and the occasional foray into Boston for delicacies.

The sort of Realism that he started took hold in the Ash Can painters of the early 20th century, the Social Realists of the 1930s. Gradually, he became accepted as one of the world's great artists. "Look at Nature, work independently and solve your own problems," was his most known statement at the time of his death, at 74, in 1910.

On the walls of one of the houses at his home compound, never sold, was a work of Helena de Kay in what looked like a schoolhouse in what must have been Hurley - where now a historical marker mentions his infatuation as though it must have been with a local schoolteacher, and not that of a man caught in the grimace of endless yearning.

"Secrecy often suggests something worth concealing," wrote Amanda Benson in a May 2008 article about Homer's love life - and probably broken heart - in Smithsonian Magazine. "It is unclear whether Homer ever actually proposed to de Kay, but he painted a picture of a proposal scene in 1872, with the telling title Waiting for an Answer, and in 1874 he painted an almost identical scene minus the young suitor (Girl in the Orchard), suggesting that the girl's answer had been to send the boy away. Around the same time, he painted several other pictures of 'thwarted love.'"

Benson goes on to note how some scholars think that the artist might have fallen in love again a few years later, when he was in Mountainville at the Houghtaling Farm, because of the new face that appears there. "Shall I Tell Your Fortune? shows a saucy-looking lass seated barefoot on the grass, holding playing cards in one hand. Her other hand rests palm-up on her hip, and her direct gaze seems to be asking the painter much more than the title suggests," she writes. "A similar woman appears in other Homer paintings from the mid-to-late 1870s, and this may have been the schoolteacher referred to by Homer's grandniece, Lois Homer Graham, in a piece she wrote for the book Prout's Neck Observed decades later." In that book, the grandniece talked of how her uncle had spoken about having lost his love life to his career.

"After de Kay was married in 1874, the subject of courtship tapered off and eventually disappeared altogether from Homer's art," writes Burns, a noted art professor at the University of Indiana. "Girl in the Orchard suggests that at some level Homer never ceased to regret his failure to make de Kay his wife... Homer kept this painting all his life."

So what of all that original research, reflected in the Hurley historical sign? Goodrich and Downes, it turns out, were working from the grandniece's statement, based on Homer's own descriptions of past times lost. Gould (whom I knew in my 20s and once drove to New York from Virginia) ended up better-known as a biographer of early-20th-century women authors and Robert Frost. She never republished her Homer books, or spoke of them at all.

Looking up Winslow Homer's other times in the area, beyond Hurley, we discovered that his friend Stone's studio backed onto the back yard - then a field with views of the Catskills - behind the house that my own family and I now inhabit. At a recent library event, we ran into a Kingston-based artist who spoke of visiting Homer's final home years ago and meeting his grandniece, who gave him a tour of his studio before it was later moved to the Portland Museum of Art, and showed him the views that he loved best to paint.

I've seen those views of the sea. And I've seen the views around the schoolhouse that caught Homer's eye 138 years ago, backed by a mountain road called Eagle's Nest. I step out onto the balcony off my own studio and watch clouds slide towards me from the Catskills, headed overhead in the direction of the Hudson just behind me, and from there seawards. For a moment, I remember all the loves for which I once yearned, the many projects started and left unfinished.

My wife and kid are inside. I'm not about to leave my deadlines as Winslow Homer once did and head into the unknown of my own painterly visions, my own creative response to what's outside me, or inside.

Ah, such yearning, I sigh. It has long been a key to all that we create as humans: a source of mystery, without anything but lost and refound letters, the daubings of paint to canvas and ink to paper, to record - but also a secret to our region's draw on all creators, then, now and hopefully forever.

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