With his celebrated works of the 1860s, Winslow Homer's art achieved early acclaim, particularly for his images of the Civil War and his depictions of rural American life. In the 1870s, Homer's work turned almost exclusively to farm and seaside subjects. The works from this period, images of both young boys and girls engaged in leisurely activities in the rural countryside, have become regarded as quintessential Homer subjects, not only reflecting the artist's innate and sophisticated handling of color and light, but transcending mere images of children at play to represent the human condition in the years following the Civil War.
The present painting, Farmer with a Pitchfork, addresses several of the issues of American society repairing from the atrocities and realities of the recent war. According to Frederick Ilchman, "The traumatic period of the Civil War and Reconstruction plunged Americans into unprecedented and wrenching change. Observers felt they had witnessed a nation forced into maturity." (J. Wilmerding, et al, Winslow Homer in the 1870s--Selections from the Valentine-Pulsifer Collection, Princeton, New Jersey, 1990, p. 48) There was a maturation in the age, activities and psychology of several of Homer's figures depicted during this period, perhaps mirroring the mentality of a post-war nation in flux. In addition to these pictorial themes and imagery, the presence of a solitary figure begins to play a role in Homer's works. While many of Homer's children are depicted in groups engaging in joyful, youthful activities, his older figures appear solitary and contemplative as seen in Farmer with a Pitchfork.
John Wilmerding states, "The individual isolated and solitary acquired ever greater gravity of form and mood. Just as Homer himself was moving from his late youth into middle age, so too we watch his early preference for recording the activities of children yield to figures of early maturity, painted with a sense of self-awareness and the nuances of a psychological sensibility." (Winslow Homer in the 1870s -- Selections from the Valentine-Pulsifer Collection, p. 14) In Farmer with a Pitchfork, a young man stands tall and assured, overlooking his cultivated fields and collected stacks of hay, which undoubtedly took much effort to achieve. The young man's stance does not convey a sense of exhaustion, but rather satisfaction. Instead of moving onto his next chore, he surveys his work in a calm moment.
The young man in Farmer with a Pitchfork is also a central motif included in a series of four works on the subject of courtship, all executed by Homer in 1874. He appears in a more compositionally complex watercolor titled Rustic Courtship (Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia) which, in turn, served as the source for a much larger oil titled The Rustics (Private collection). The remaining two works are A Temperance Meeting [Noon Time] (Philadelphia Museum of Art, John H. McFadden, Jr. Fund) and The Course of True Love (unlocated). In A Temperance Meeting, a milkmaid offers the farmer a drink of milk on a country path. In The Rustics, a housemaid leans out a window and the farmer offers her a bouquet of flowers, perhaps the ones extant at his feet in Farmer with a Pitchfork. In Rustic Courtship, the farmer again stands under a window and gazes up at the housemaid. His pose with the pitchfork is identical to that in the present work.
According to Douglas Nickel, all of the women are set against "a contained space and rectilinear background emphasizing the irregular outlines of the female forms and serve to draw attention to the subjects' modest poses." (Winslow Homer in the 1870s--Selections from the Valentine-Pulsifer Collection, p. 53) This modest pose is used for the farmer figure and is even more striking with Homer's use of bold colors which divide the pictures into distinctive planes. In Farmer with a Pitchfork, the farmer stands in a field of bright green with young budding flowers at his feet, looking towards his orderly haystacks in the distant field. The picture plane is divided at the end of this field by a darker, contrasting green forest. A bright blue sky appears at upper left, relieving the intensity of the contrast while the mid-afternoon, glowing sun reflects upon the farmer's wide-brimmed hat and scarlet shirt. The potentially ominous sharpness of his pitchfork resting across his shoulders is distilled by its dark color, but the sun casts a gleam of silvery-white, illuminating the tool. Homer's use of contrasting colors in Farmer with a Pitchfork is masterful not only in demarcating the horizontal planes of the picture, but also emphasizing Homer's new type of a solitary, mature figure.
In the present painting, Farmer with a Pitchfork, the farmer and agricultural metaphor of order and regeneration after a time of great civil strife is telling of our young nation's efforts at Reconstruction, contemplating its recent past and the hope of cultivating a promising future.
This work will be included in the forthcoming Spanierman Gallery/CUNY/Goodrich/Whitney catalogue raisonné of the works of Winslow Homer.