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arts

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American Art: Gay Male, Nineteenth Century  
 
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The pensive red-haired woman, featured in all these works, usually is considered to be a portrait of a woman whom Homer hoped to marry. However, it has been demonstrated that Homer based this notably "masculine looking" woman upon a young boy, whom he occasionally employed as a model during this period. Rather than referring to a specific relationship, these images may constitute an extended contemplation upon the repression of same-sex love by a society.

Concern about this issue might have helped to provoke Homer's personal and professional crisis of 1881, when he withdrew permanently from the New York art world. After spending two years in a tiny English fishing village on the harsh North Sea coast, he settled in Prout's Neck, Maine, where he largely lived in isolation from others.

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Trained as a graphic artist, Homer established his reputation through the illustrations that he produced for the popular magazine, Harper's Weekly. Commissioned by Harper's to record the events of the Civil War, Homer did not produce the heroic, propagandistic images desired by the editors.

Such prints as War for the Union, A Bayonet Charge (1862) revealed the chaos and confusion of the battlefront and prominently featured wounded and dead men. Numerous drawings and paintings (for example, Surgeon's Call, 1863, and Soldier Being Given a Drink from a Canteen, 1864) depict ordinary soldiers, trying to help one another deal with the devastating effects of war.

In addition, Homer produced many paintings and drawings of camp life, including The Briarwood Pipe (1864) and Pitching Quoits (1865). In these quiet scenes of soldiers resting behind the battle lines, Homer subtly revealed the intimate friendships that men developed in the difficult experiences of war.

Many of the images of men hunting and fishing that Homer produced in the post-Civil War era (for example, Camping out in the Adirondack Mountains, 1874, and Two Guides, 1875) also evoke the spiritual rapport of men engaged in outdoor occupations. However, during this period, he increasingly created contemplative pictures of solitary figures in natural settings (Playing a Fish, 1874, among other pieces).

In contrast to most other male American artists active in the nineteenth century, Homer produced dignified images of women that lack any hint of sentimentality or condescension (see, for example, Noon Recess, 1873, and Milking Time, 1875). Such images as Promenade on the Beach (1880) show women enjoying one another's company.

After his personal crisis of 1881, Homer tended to infuse his works with a dark and somber mood. In his late paintings, he often depicted monumental figures engaged in powerful struggles with the forces of nature, as he did most forcefully in The Life Line (1884), which was based upon a rescue that he witnessed off the coast of Maine.

Homer's late paintings of fishermen (such as The Herring Net, 1885, and Eight Bells, 1886) reveal the heroism involved in their daily activities. An unusually romantic painting, Buffalo Girls (1890), depicts two women, passionately embracing, as they dance on a moonlit beach.

Utilizing drawings and watercolors that he made during travels in the American South and the Carribean, Homer also created powerful images of persons of African descent. These works were virtually unique in the era, when white artists routinely depicted black people with demeaning stereotypes. The Gulf Stream (1899) celebrates both the courage and sensual beauty of an African American fisherman, who has survived a devastating tropical storm.

As did Homer, Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) created an intensely realistic, distinctly American classicism. Believing that he could not attain an adequate understanding of anatomy through the training conventionally available in art schools, he studied for four years at Jefferson Medical College in his native Philadelphia. His direct, intensely honest depictions of the human figure attest to the impact of this education upon his art.

Eakins refused to incorporate in his works any of the elegant decorative and historical details that greatly appealed to American viewers of the late nineteenth century. As a result, he never attained the degree of success that he merited. Eakins' dedication to studying the world around him is evident even in his occasional treatments of traditional religious and historical themes, such as The Crucifixion (1880), which is a remarkably direct and straightforward (albeit dignified) depiction of a naked man strapped to a cross.

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