Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Some Christmas Cheer from Winslow Homer, a Cambridge Native

     As a history researcher, I often find that libraries are a gift -- and their online collections are a gift as well! The following images, originally published in Harper's Weekly in the late 1850's, are in the Boston Public Library's Winslow Homer collection, which is available to view on their flickr photostream.*

     Winslow Homer was born in Boston in 1836, and he grew up in Cambridge,  on the Old Cambridge side of the gray area between that neighborhood and Cambridgeport [1] (see this post for an overview of the Cambridge of his childhood). At age nineteen, he was apprenticed to a commercial lithographer, creating prints from metal plates. He began working as a freelance illustrator in 1857.[2] The wood engraving prints here are from the early years of his career.  

 My favorite part about this image is the holly framing the individual scenes.

    In 1859, Homer moved to New York, where he continued working as an illustrator, studied life drawing at the National Academy of Design, and briefly studied under the painter Frédéric Rondel. He worked for Harper's Weekly for over twenty years, and during the Civil War he served as a special correspondent, visiting the front and illustrating scenes from the daily life of the Army of the Potomac.[3] After the war, he turned more seriously to watercolors and oil painting. He spent time living and working in Paris; Glouster, Massachusetts; England; New York; and Maine. While he lived in Maine, he also made regular visits to the tropics and to the Adirondacks in New York State. He continued painting his whole life.[4]

If you have seen Winslow Homer's later work, particularly his paintings, you might agree that the figures in his early wood engraved scenes are much less graceful and expressive. If you're interested, I recommend this online exhibit. What I like best about many of his prints, however, including this one, is that there are so many little interactions going on between the characters. You see people talking, listening, reaching out, interrupting, or just quietly reflecting in the glow of the candles.

     Wood engraving, a technique developed in the late 18th century, is a printmaking process in which the wood is cut away where there will be white space in the finished product. It is a form of woodcut printing, but wood engraving is done on the hard end of the block, against the grain, and woodcuts are usually done in the softer side of the block. Because of this, the engraving tools are somewhat different. Wood engraving blocks are ideal for printing over and over again, making them a common method of reproducing images for newspapers in the nineteenth century. [5]

I think this is my favorite of this set. The little lines of the engraving capture the needles of the trees perfectly. I like the contrast between the gentle curves of the tall, bare tree on the right and the rough, craggy boulders next to it. I also like the shadows in the snow. I'm impressed by the apparent skill of the pair making wreaths; that's a difficult task.

    What do you like - or dislike -- about these images? Do they evoke Christmastime for you?

    To those of you who celebrate Christmas, have a merry one!

* The images themselves are public domain. The digital photographs of the Boston Public Library's copies of those images are  considered some rights reserved.
1.  Downes, William Howe. The Life and Works of Winslow Homer. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911.
2. Boston Public Library Flickr sets, Winslow Homer Prints and Paintings. Accessed 12/21/2011.
3. Ibid.
4. National Gallery of Art online. Winslow Homer in the National Gallery of Art
  Accessed 12/21/2011.
5.Griffiths, Antony. Prints and Printmaking: an introduction to the history and techniques. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.

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