Winslow Homer was an artist immune neither to the critics nor the market. While he enjoyed considerable success throughout his career with both, the New York Academy show of 1870 met with considerable resistance from the press. In a time of evolving tastes and morality, Homer's technical style and subject matter provoked intense responses. Moving away from the meticulously detailed "truth" of the observed world in painting, Homer's submissions exhibited a looseness of line, form and color that confused the critics. While they praised his uniquely American "originality" they were uncomfortable with what they viewed as mere sketches. The Nation opined: "scarcely a study on these Academy walls is a study of drawing. They do not pretend to be; they are all, or nearly all, alike, memoranda of effects of light and shade and hue." Most controversial of the nine Homer canvases at the show was Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (1923, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. William F. Milton) of 1870. This composition bordered on indecent under the strict morality of the time, showing women just out of the sea, their unstockinged, tanned legs exposed, and a tumble of golden hair ablaze at the center of the composition. D.O'C. Townley of the New York Mail wrote that that "there is an abandon about all the ladies... (this is) a spicy picture."
The next year, Homer spent the summer in the Catskills, and moved into the Tenth Street Studio building in the fall. That year he reworked several paintings, including The Country School, which was well-received at the Academy exhibition of 1872. As the New York Evening Express noted, this one-room school could only be an American setting, and the carefully-drawn detail of each figure and face was "Homer's answer to the criticism he had received for his 1870 Academy Offerings" (Margaret Conrads, Winslow Homer and the Critics, 2001, p. 40) Later in 1872, Homer completed a "companion" piece, Snap the Whip, which was largely reviled in its day, but eventually gained recognition as one of the painter's watershed compositions.
In 1873, the American scene was rocked by the greatest financial panic of its history. Markets and banks collapsed, and the nation was consumed by an atmosphere of fear and uncertainity, combined with nostalgia for a happier, less complicated time. This conflict between modernity and the past was also manifest in the art world, with increased resistance to the new techniques and visions of forward-looking artists. Homer brought several pictures to the Century Club for sale, most of them with a new focus on images of women – particularly solitary figures in contemplative poses. In canvases such a Girl Reading on a Stone Porch, Homer found a middle-ground in the argument over faithful reproduction and the nuanced observation of reality, studying instead the effect of light on more closely-wrought figures. Here, he depicts a young woman elegantly sitting in a folding chair, the flat light of the shaded porch throwing into sharp relief the verdant landscape and cloud-bedecked sky just beyond the half opened rear door of the house. This woman seems relaxed and content, resting on a summer's day lost in the story that has completely absorbed her.
Homer did not exhibit at the Academy in 1873, even though he had been elected to the hanging committee after his success in 1872. While he did not have a major new oil to show, financial considerations probably encouraged him to offer a selection of attractive work at the Century and Somerville Gallery shows. The scale and grace of Girl reading on a Stone Porch offer a small encapsulation of the developments and trends in Homer's esthetic and technical evolution. Without resorting to the sharp effects of direct sunlight to illuminate his subject's interior monologue, Homer presents a uniquely American subject in a vernacular that only he among his contemporaries or followers could execute with such quiet harmony of tone and line.
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