“Commercial" and "art" have never been words comfortably partnered. In many minds, they are even mutually exclusive. A gifted artist who works primarily for monetary gain is considered a sellout, right?
Wrong, I think. We all do what we think we must. Bills have to be paid. Loved ones cared for. Life should be good, if possible, not bad.
Which is why Winslow Homer, a gifted artist, followed the money as a magazine illustrator for 20 years before he followed his heart and became a full-time painter.
Yet "Winslow Homer's America," an exhibition of a private collection on loan to the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art that spans his days as an artist for hire, isn't a sad, artist-as-hack show. He may not have considered this part of his career "real art," but he took pride in being technically excellent and in harnessing his innate sense of composition.
Mostly self-taught, Homer (1836-1910) drew illustrations for weekly news publications that were becoming a booming industry in mid 19th century America. His drawings were engraved on a wood block, then transferred to a metal plate to be reproduced by the thousands. Because of their ubiquity, many will be familiar, especially since some of the same prints are also in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg and were recently exhibited.
They don't have great monetary value. As documents of Homer's artistic growth, they are invaluable.
The exhibition begins in the 1850s, after his apprenticeship with a lithographer, when he became a freelance illustrator for newspapers such as Harper's Weekly. If he encountered grimness during the years before the Civil War, he didn't record it professionally. Pretty women and handsome men picnic, shop, stroll, skate, sleigh and dance their way across the pages.
That tone changed abruptly when Harper's sent him to cover the war from 1861 to 1865. A group of those prints covers a range of war activity, from weary soldiers bivouacked in a war zone to the women waiting for them at home. One of his most famous images, The Sniper, is from that period and pictures a lone soldier perched in a tree, aiming his rifle at an unknown target.
Even as a young man, Homer demonstrated an intuitive gift for inventive composition. He drew specifically for print, understanding how his work would best translate into a print. He crammed a lot of detail into most of them but kept them fluid and open, never "bleeding" his lines, which would have brought a heavy murkiness to a scene.
But in the late 1860s and early 1870s, his prints assume a less graphic, more painterly quality. He was able to achieve subtle tonalities in black and white that he hadn't before. He also showed more emotional restraint in presenting his subject matter. By that point, he was painting in earnest, and his goal was to be able to do so full time. Gloucester Harbor (1873), in which young boys boat in a harbor, prefigures Breezing Up (1876), one of his finest paintings.
There are no late prints; Homer quit commercial illustration in 1875, and Camping Out in the Adirondack Mountains (1874) for Harper's is the last print in this show. Though he was mostly critically praised for his oils and watercolors, he struggled for many years financially. But he never looked back.
This show gives us the promise of Homer's brilliant career as a painter and suggests that he might not have realized his particular form of greatness without his arduous apprenticeship. He did achieve financial success in his chosen field without sacrificing his artistic vision. Success, he shows us, is never just black and white.
A smaller but equally compelling show, "Art Posters of France," also from a private collection, is a companion piece. It and the Homer exhibition are rubricked under the general title "The Commercial Medium."
That it's full of color isn't the only difference between them. With most of the prints dated 1899 or 1900, it overlaps slightly with Homer's career while conveying a far more buoyant sensibility. The artists here — and there are some significant names, such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec — embraced the concept of commercial illustration. They went even further than Homer, who was a journalist, in creating images for advertising.
Color lithography had been invented by the early 20th century, and artists were having a lot of fun with it, if these prints are representative of the medium. Most have the characteristic curves, flat planes and dramatic graphics of art nouveau, a style that lent itself well to commercial interpretation.
In this show we see that Toulouse-Lautrec lent his talents to promoting bicycle chains, Alphonse Mucha to cigarette papers and beer, and Jules Cheret to Belle Epoch cafes and nightclubs.
Cheret was an advertising phenomenon, a serious painter who became rich and famous from his blue chip clients that eventually included railroad companies and manufacturers. He was notable for his depictions of women, Cherettes as they were called, who were girls on the town, having a blast. In the past, women of their ilk would have been the subject of moralizing in their portraits; Cheret unburdened them of it.
His style was more rococo than art nouveau. Several of his prints are on view and note his eccentric treatment of hands. He seems to have had a special fondness for the extended pinkie.
These are not the original advertising posters that lined Parisian boulevards; those were quite large. Most of the prints here were created by Cheret, who published limited-edition portfolios of downsized poster reproductions and sold them through subscriptions.
In a way he was a double-dipper, reselling what had already been sold. It's unabashedly commercial. Then and now, a lot of people considered it art, too.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.