Years before I first encountered a palm tree, decades before I found myself entranced by the watery ribbons of azure, lapis and turquoise entwined around and through the chain of Caribbean islands, I passed through shadows of tangled bougainvillea and tumbling poinciana into a world of tropical dreams. There, I discovered Winslow Homer and his art.
One of America’s premier watercolorists, Homer (1836-1910) moved from New York to Prout’s Neck, Maine in the summer of 1883. His work makes clear his love of the New England coast, yet he often vacationed in Florida, Bermuda and the Caribbean. His mastery of his medium and his unique vision of the islands produced exquisite renderings of sun-drenched homes, synchronized palms and great, vivid falls of blossoms that seem touched with scent even on the printed page.
On a first trip to the Caribbean, I was stunned to discover the reality of its marvelous palms and beaches had intertwined so completely in my mind with Homer’s portrayal of them it was impossible to untangle the threads.
I had arrived expecting to think, “Winslow Homer’s painting looks like this.” Wriggling my toes into sand softer than sugar and tasting the salt-heavy air, I came to a rather different conclusion. Gazing around at the shimmering islands I thought, “This looks like Winslow Homer.” It was as though the painter had absorbed, intensified, and re-presented the sea, sand and sky in such a way that his paintings were distillations of the islands – purer than reality itself.
That same distillation of reality is a hallmark of another iconic American artist, Georgia O’Keeffe. Her bold, idiosyncratic forms are awash with color, occasionally ethereal as a swallowtail’s wing but more often so intensely saturated the painting seems illuminated from within. Like Winslow Homer, O’Keeffe can leave an observer convinced that reality is only a poor reflection of her art.
In his book Georgia O’Keeffe: Arts and Letters, Jack Cowart considers the relationship of an original O’Keeffe to reproductions.
O’Keeffe admitted to carrying shapes around in her mind for a very long time, until she could find the proper colors for them… No reproduction will ever do justice to the intensity, the solidity, or the high pitch of these colors.
O’Keefe, on the other hand, seems more interested in the relationship of her vision to reality.
I said to myself, I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me — shapes and ideas so near to me — so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down. I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught.
That process of stripping down and starting anew was both remarkably simple and impossibly difficult. In 1933, she advised Russell Vernon Hunter, “Try to paint your world as though you are the first man looking at it-the wind and the heat, the cold, the dust and the vast starlit night.”
O’Keeffe took her own advice well. More often than not, she seems to have been the first person truly to see Taos, Abiquiu, or the Chama River. In like manner, no one ever has conveyed the essence of morning glory, jimson or rose in precisely her way. Like Winslow Homer, her images often appear more real than reality itself, as though the world arrived on her doorstep one morning and said, “Come here. Let me show you my heart, so that you can convey it to the world.”
She succeeded remarkably well. Looking at her 1938 painting of two jimson weeds, it’s impossible not to say, “Georgia O’Keeffe did that.”
On the other hand, her way of seeing has influenced our own perception of the world so deeply that, when we take time to look at an extraordinarily vibrant flower blooming in the garden, we often say, “Georgia O’Keeffe could have done that”.
And we would be exactly right. Neither Winslow Homer nor Georgia O’Keeffe created the world represented by their art. Yet even as their genius manifested itself in brushstrokes, their willingness truly to see the world, their openness to entering into a deeply intimate relationship with it and a capacity for allowing that relationship to re-shape their vision inevitably has re-shaped ours.
In an essay titled Art and Perception , Richard Rothstein recalls his own early explorations of the relationship between perception and artistic production.
As a young man off on his first world adventures, I was stunned by the revelation that many of the great artists I admired did not invent their mysterious landscapes, the colors and visual signatures of China, Japan, Tuscany and Provence. Rather, they were brilliantly capturing the unique moods, colors, light and shapes that nature had already chosen to create.
I remember gazing over the hills of Tuscany for the first time and thinking, “Oh! So that’s where Leonardo got that.” And I remember the day I realized that Van Gogh was “photographing” (through his unusual lens) the unique palette and landscapes of Provence.
An artist himself, Rothstein reflects on the confrontation with reality in terms of gratitude. “I can only speak for myself,” he says, “but I often walk away from something I’ve just photographed in Manhattan with a sense of gratitude – toward my subject.” Quite rightly, he asks, “How much of an artist’s talent is in his ability to create and how much lies in his ability to record – not just the obvious visuals but also the mood and the energy of the subject? “
Rothstein seems to suggest that if one side of the artistic coin is the artist, the other side is the subject itself. Reality drags the artist – the painter, the writer, the photographer, the poet – over to the face of the cliff, the face of the building, the face of the nameless and forgotten ones among us and says, “This is my gift to you. I am giving you the vision. Now , the responsibility to carry it forward is yours.”
In the end, it may be that artists of every sort are bound together not by canvas or manuscript, not by sonnet or score, but by their deeply personal, intensely visceral response to this gift of vision. Having seen the world in all of its depth, breadth and particular beauty, they are the ones who rejoice in that vision and gratefully share it with others.
Winslow Homer knew the experience well. As he said, “The sun will not rise or set without my notice and thanks.” Vincent Van Gogh shared Homer’s impulse toward thankfulness. “I have walked this earth for 30 years,” he said, “and out of gratitude want to leave some souvenir.” Even among the solemn philosophers there is some agreement, with Nietzsche himself declaring, “The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”
In truth, if appreciation of the world and expressions of gratitude are marks of the artistic soul, the artists among us might be found in surprising places. Not so many years ago I witnessed a six-year-old running into her house, bubbling and breathless. “Look, Mommy!” she exclaimed, waving about a fistful of leaves. ”Look what the tree gave me! I’m so happy! I’m going to make something no one’s ever seen!”
Winslow Homer, Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe, makers of the never-before-seen, are telling us to follow the lead of that child. “Open your eyes,” they say,”and look at what the world has given you. Make something of it. Be grateful.”