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American hero

The High Museum pairs Winslow Homer with his critics

Field hands, fishermen, boys eating watermelon, a young woman squeezing water out of her skirt at the beach — Winslow Homer's benign narratives may not appear avant-garde to today's artmakers, but the 19th-century artist was described by critics of his time as a hero and an upstart. He is credited with defining an American style of art.

Winslow Homer and the Critics: Forging a National Art in the 1870s, at the High Museum of Art through Jan. 6, traces the development of the artist's career from a Civil War illustrator for Harper's Weekly to an independent, versatile painter whose work reflected distinctly national themes while defying the norms for subject matter and technique.

Curated by Margaret Conrads of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the traveling show limits itself to a view of the artist's oeuvres between 1868 and 1881, examining Homer's work before he became famous for his sea paintings. In more than 50 watercolors and oil paintings, viewers will discover his interest in social issues and political events, as well as how his work interpreted the effect of outdoor light on color and form. The narrative images often depict women, children and African-Americans in everyday scenes within rural landscapes.

Art critics of the time play an important role in this exhibition. Appearing alongside the paintings, excerpts of their reviews — often contradictory — reveal how the artist resisted and responded to criticism and how his visibly American style took shape. The critics were deeply concerned that art should be a refined mirror of nature and they bemoaned Homer's "unfinished" looking canvasses. When he pictured recreational horseback riding ("The Bridle Path") and women at the beach ("Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts"), he was disparaged as being too original and thought to be wasting his talent on trivia. But with seaside images such as "Three Boys in a Dory with Lobster Pots" and "A Basket of Clams," he garnered the critics' respect for watercolor as a medium and challenged them to rethink the definition of "completeness" in a painting.

In these and other paintings, Homer's show at the High reinforces the idea that the American artist fought the same battles with public and critical opinion as his Impressionist counterparts in France. Like them, he focused on light and color, rather than detail, to capture and record moments of real life. Renegade contemporary artists experiencing similar bouts with critics should be encouraged by the fact that a man with a paintbrush who possessed so much "promise" and so "little imagination" managed to become one of America's most celebrated painters after all.

Winslow Homer and the Critics: Forging a National Art in the 1870s continues through Jan. 6 at the High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-4444. Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. $8-$15, under 6 free.??